Monday 29 August 2011

Art School Confidential (2006)


In 1989, comic creator Daniel Clowes published Eightball, a series that featured numerous short stories and character pieces, as well as small diatribes and rants on various subjects. Amongst these stories was a four-page comic piece entitled Art School Confidential, which showed up in issue seven in 1991. Essentially a satirical exposé based on Clowes’ experiences in art school, the short piece became a fan favourite, most of who recognised the very character types Clowes wrote about. After the success of the film version of another Clowes property, Ghost World, the idea was struck to bring another one to the big screen. The popularity of the Art School Confidential piece made it the natural choice, with Clowes getting back together with Ghost World director Terry Zwigoff for the latest adaptation.

Jerome (Max Minghella) is a young guy from the suburbs who wants to be a famous artist, and heads to New York City’s Strathmore College for his freshman year as a drawing major. However, his fellow students are all nuts and the faculty care more about their own art projects. Even worse is the serial killer murdering people in the immediate area. Jerome also falls for Audrey (Sophia Myles), a model for his life-drawing class, but she seems more interested in Jonah (Matt Keeslar), whose primitive work draws raves from everyone, and the influence of the cynical failed artist Jimmy (Jim Broadbent) does little to lighten his mood.

As I said, what really sold the idea of adapting this piece into the next film version of a Daniel Clowes work was its great popularity amongst the comic book’s fans. When he wrote it originally, Clowes imagined only a handful of people would get it, and those would all be friends of his. It was perhaps a little short-sighted of him, since his Eightball series would have most likely earned him a fanbase amongst the art school crowd. Since this was the case, these art school students loved seeing someone expose the “million-dollar racket” of their college experience, shining a light on all the different kinds of oddballs, clichés and cretins that populated their hallways and classrooms. And the character types he looks at are great stuff, and they certainly make the transition from page to screen well, with several new additions.

Jerome is the film’s main character, and he’s the sincere guy who wants to be an artist because art is what he loves. He’s initially a little bland because he knows what kind of stuff he wants to do and merely wants the proper recognition and guidance to help him get there. When he finds himself surrounded by the various hipster/hippy/beatnik/angry/untalented/precious types, who all seem to get along much better than him, his confidence is shaken and he starts to become desperate to win the accolades and attention he thinks he should have. Indeed, it’s his exposure to his fellow students’ hostility and his teachers’ apathy that make him interesting. His one ray of hope in the whole place is that he seems to be making some headway with Audrey, the stunning young woman who poses nude for his class. However, it’s the increasing sense of despondency and bitterness he feels that makes it harder for him to get very far. Max Minghella plays Jerome well, a fresh-faced kid who does become more cynical as the film moves on.

The whole film is strewn with other great and interesting characters. Joel David Moore plays Bardo, the one who introduces Jerome around. Bardo is in his third year in the school as a freshman, because he constantly drops out and comes back with a different major. He knows the system and the people that come along every year, so he is able to spot the clichés a mile off, ticking them off with an amused derision as he points out each of them to Jerome in class. He’s also not above counting himself amongst the clichés, so he’s clearly very self-aware.

Jerome’s two roommates are Matthew and Vince. Matthew, played by Nick Swardson, is a pretty standard kind, the obviously gay, but completely closeted fashion student. Frankly, there’s little done with Matthew that’s funny, moving or even affects the plot, so he’s not much use. On the other hand, Ethan Suplee is on great form as Vince, the incredibly excitable and aggressive film student who has all the subtlety of a brick going through a plate-glass window… filmed in Cinerama… with surround sound… in 3D. He’s obsessed with making a film, but he seemingly has absolutely no concept on how film works, so it’s just garbled mess. I’ve been to film school (of sorts) and I have totally met this guy.

John Malkovich and Anjelica Huston each play teachers at polar ends of the scale. Huston is the unnamed Art History teacher, who seeks to engage with her students and discuss what art can mean as a representation of the artist and society. However, she is only met with contemptuous snorts from the class, who seem to think that because she used Hamlet, War and Peace and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, it means she’s saying that good art must come from dead, white males. Her mild frustration is clear, but she remains unrattled by her students’ sneering defensiveness. Malkovich is the flip side to this. His Professor Sandiford is a pretentious ass, still trying to make it as an artist himself, so mostly shows indifference to his students’ work because, as Clowes puts it in the comic, “the last thing they want is more competition.” He’s also got a mild hint of the sexual predator about him, which his students seem to mistake as teacherly guidance, and think the world of him.

The two best characters, and the ones that come closest to the tone of the source material are Jimmy, the alcoholic failed artist and Strathmore graduate, and Marvin Bushmiller, the unabashedly hostile success story of the college art program. Jimmy is played by Jim Broadbent, and his frankness and unbridled cynicism make him a great antidote to the pomposity of the college, even if he is quite unsettling. Marvin Bushmiller is even better, played with caustic egotism by Adam Scott. Bushmiller is the one artist who made it, and returns for an evening of questions in which he seeks to mock the institution and try to get everyone to realise just how rich he is. When someone asks him what art will be like in the future, he dismisses it as a stupid and completely irrelevant question. When someone asks why he’s such an asshole, he responds, “Now, that’s a great question. No, it really is!”

Considering all of these characters, and the spirit of the source material, you’d think that the film would virtually write itself into something full of wit and irony… sadly this is not the case.

When you don’t consider the popularity of the original Art School Confidential as a factor, what makes the fact that it was chosen as the next adaptation so odd is that it is literally four pages of storyless rants. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve been known to indulge in such things myself. And what’s there is really very funny and honest, if incredibly bitter, although nothing that was as developed as Ghost World, which spanned eight issues and did have something of a story to it. As such, the decision to develop this much smaller piece into a film would require coming up with a story with which you could actually string these somewhat disparate segments together. Given the format of the original comic piece, and the retention of the title, you would expect perhaps some sort of journalistic thread that would run through it all. Perhaps the main character could offer a narration in the form of diary entries or letters home. Has it been done before? Yes, plenty of times. However, not only would it fit the tone of the piece, it would be infinitely preferable to the utterly generic murder subplot that becomes the main drive of the film. Although it does provide some good stuff for Vince’s attempted filmmaking project, it starts to take over the whole film, infecting the various relationships in the film and crippling their development. Perhaps Clowes and Zwigoff were trying to say something about the lack of inspiration in art, or a statement about bad film adaptations, which Clowes actually wrote about in Eightball, as Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. But, if this is what they were shooting for, they missed considerably. It seems more likely that Clowes simply had no idea as to what to do with it, and so hastily constructed some slapdash crime plot for his characters to wander through. It’s as if Clowes and Zwigoff took inspiration from Natural Born Killers or Ace in the Hole, making some attempt at media satire, but without the clever savagery of either. Hell, even Airheads hit the mark better than that. It would have worked out much better for Art School Confidential if they had taken inspiration from something like Rushmore. Now, obviously we don’t really need another Rushmore, but I’d be much more satisfied with that as a conceptual muse rather than something you’d get on a bad episode of Criminal Minds… and I really like that show.

Art School Confidential could have been a witty, insightful and perhaps a rather touching film. The performances are decent and the characters will be instantly recognisable to anyone who’s ever studied any kind of art. However, the whole is fatally compromised by the serial killer subplot, which just steals time, focus and destroys any kind interest you’ve built up for these characters. If it had been kept as a straight character piece, it could have worked, but the common crime aspect is just too much to take.

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