Thursday, May 24, 2007


Portrait of a movie as a near-miss

By Edward Copeland
With the exception of the dark-spirited fun that is Bad Santa, all of Terry Zwigoff's films as director since the great documentary Crumb have revolved around art to some extent.

Reuniting with Daniel Clowes, the author of the comic and screenplay for Ghost World, Zwigoff released Art School Confidential last year, to mostly mixed reviews. While it doesn't come close to his last three films, there certainly is more there than most gave the film credit for.

Max Minghella stars as Jerome, a freshman at a somewhat prestigious arts college who hasn't found time for romance or a way to truly satisfy his artistic yearnings, being that much of his time has been spent on the wrong end of bullies' fists. Strathmore Academy offers him a chance at a new start on all levels through a beautiful young woman (Sophia Myles) and a professor who acts as a somewhat loopy artistic mentor (John Malkovich).

Much of the comedy, while familiar, works thanks to the stellar supporting cast which in addition to Malkovich includes Ethan Suplee, Joel David Moore, Jim Broadbent and Steve Buscemi. The jabs at college and the art world have been done many times and better, but they still land on their targets more often than they miss. However, then comes the serial killer subplot.

I'd read most of the criticisms of the movie relating to this story strand, so I was prepared for it. Still, the reason the killer plot doesn't work is less because it seems out of place it's that once it develops, it's pretty clear where it's headed and what the film has in mind as an ultimate statement and that also has been done much better elsewhere (From The King of Comedy to To Die For and others too numerous to mention).

As a result, I got impatient because I was so far ahead of the film and I think that is what ultimately sinks it. Still, there are enough engaging moments and funny moments to save it from being a complete misfire.

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I saw this, very disappointing.
I was baffled and heartbroken by ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, and pretty much for the opposite reasons. For being written by Dan Clowes, who went to art school, who makes (made?) a living as an artistically ambitious cartoonist, the movie seems to hate all artists, and all art. The only belly laughs I got were from inside jokes - deep, deep inside - for cartoonists: the school Strathmore Academy, references to Ernie Bushmiller and Gary Panter, a Charles Schneider painting of Clowes as one of the murder victims. But the rest of the time the satire is aimed transparently foolish straw man targets. As a comedy, it's a dud and kind of puerile.

But the second half, a complicated, cruel and cynical meditation on art and commerce, fame and talent, and the tangled relationships between an artist's worldly love object and true Muse; that story is tough and thoughtful. That's when I felt Clowes' hand moving on a screen for the first time, rather than Zwigoff's. The serial murder and artistic sell-out story is done injustice by the dumb, 60-years-too-late jokes about modern art (it's just shapes!?). The shape of the plot, the dense nesting of clues among what look like character sketches, right turns into unexpected territory, and general sense of malaise, all things that put pop-press critics off, are precisely what Dan Clowes has been cultivating in his comics, his entire career.

As close to greatness as I think the second half-or-so of ART SCHOOL is, the rest makes me itch, so in the end, it's still a miss.
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