Art School Confidential (2006), directed by Terry Zwigoff, follows in the footsteps of the earlier, more positively received film Ghost World (2001). In between, he also directed Bad Santa, which I have not seen. Like Ghost World, Art School Confidential is based on a comic by Daniel Clowes. Although both films are about disaffected and artistic young people, they are quite different. Art School Confidential is actually quite a disappointment relative to the other, more focused and well plotted film.
Shot at an actual art college, Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, Art School Confidential is mostly a broad satire of the pretensions of art school students and, even more broadly, the contemporary art world in general. Although the film, as of this writing, is 8 years old, it still feels contemporary enough. In fact, an interesting observation that one could make is that modern art fell into a certain groove around the time of Andy Warhol and, despite all kinds of new trends and even brand new media (e.g. digital), it has retained its basic aura that fetishizes the obscure and non-objective.
Modern art is a fairly easy target for satire. So are art students, and Zwigoff wastes no time in having one of many cynical, worldly characters expound on the predictable types who enter art school -e.g. “suburban girl,” “vegan,” “nympho,” etc.
The star is Max Minghella, who is Jerome, a (at first) naive, almost absurdly idealistic first year student who is recovering from a lifetime of being bullied and misunderstood by the plebeian world of middle America.
Jerome quickly realizes that Strathmore, the fictionalized art college, is no bohemian paradise. The school is full of bitter and sarcastic professors (John Malkovich is perfect in one of these roles), oversensitive and fiercely competitive fellow students and even a serial killer in the neighborhood. The latter becomes an increasingly important part of the plot as the story awkwardly proceeds from high school parody to murder mystery parody.
Along the way, Jerome has the mandatory heartbreaking affair with Audrey (Sophia Myles), a model in one of his classes. This is the triggering event that transforms him, almost overnight, from wide-eyed future “greatest artist of the 21st century” to a misanthropic cynic.
Unfortunately, Art School Confidential, despite its promising premise and worthy cast (aside from Minghella and Malcovitch, there is Anjelica Huston and Steve Buscemi, who also appeared in Ghost World), the film itself turns out to be little more than a series of movie cliches. As I will discuss shortly, this may be a deliberate strategy on Zwigoff’s part, but if so it did not come across very effectively.
The whole serial killer subplot, which ends up being the main plot, turns Art School Confidential into a Tom Wolfe-style satire, not of the arts, but of pop culture and the mass media. This is hardly groundbreaking, and ends up derailing the film from its original focus.
Given how culturally savvy Zwigoff is, as evidenced not only by Ghost World, but by the world-weary snapshots of the art world taken early on in Art School Confidential, it’s a little hard to believe he would create a film that turns out to be so banal. That’s what leads me to suspect that the whole structure is itself meant to be a statement.
In several segments, we see Jerome, who is apparently talented and able to draw models realistically, snubbed by teachers and classmates alike, while students who scrawl chaotically are given high praise. This is another of the movie’s familiar and rather obvious social commentaries.
The film is full of movie cliches from beginning to end. There is a montage of bad dates that Jerome suffers through -a widely overused tactic in romantic comedies. The ending, once again (without getting too specific for those who still haven’t seen the film), regurgitates social satire covered in numerous books and films of the last few decades.
Could Zwigoff be presenting Art School Confidential as a satire, not merely of the art world, but of conventional movies and narrative structure? If so, it doesn’t make it any more satisfying. This certainly isn’t even close to being one of the worst movies ever made. It mainly suffers by comparison to Zwigoff’s earlier, exceptional films Ghost World and the equally fascinating documentary from 1994, Crumb.