If they gave an Oscar for best film title, Art School Confidential one would surely grab the statuette. The movie that comes after the opening credits lives up to its promise. Screenwriter Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff have collaborated before, on the 2001 cult favorite Ghost World. But this one, in spite of the hat-tip to classic “Confidential” films, is not so much noir as black, as in black comedy. It aims to do for capital-A Art what Network (1976) did for TV news.
Since this is a movie about art, take a moment to think about the artistic choices in that opening sequence. It’s pretty inviting. It’s readily comprehensible. It’s blessedly free from self-conscious artiness, and doesn’t do that haughty-edgy thing. All this contrasts quickly with the art being made by the characters in the film. Jerome’s roommate Vince is making a movie that is a cavalcade of angst-cliché (a girl twirling in the deep end of an empty swimming pool, a girl being doused with black paint). The hotshot in Jerome’s class refuses to do assignments because he is “questioning the whole concept” (the professor says, “I’ll buy that”). He’s lauded for bringing in a scrap of cardboard adorned with a squirt of Silly String. Another student is praised for an image of a car that looks like a 13-year-old’s doodle. (A fellow student gushes, “It’s like he’s managed to unlearn everything they teach you in art school!”)
Yet Jerome’s thoughtful, accurate portraits are greeted with contempt. His professor, Sandy (John Malkovich), is not much help. Sandy’s specialty is exceedingly simple paintings of triangles. (“How long have you been doing triangles?” Jerome asks politely. “A long time,” Sandy says with quiet pride. “I was one of the first.”)
What role models does he have, anyway? When the school’s most successful alumnus (Adam Scott) appears at an assembly, he’s unbearably smug and rude. A student asks, “Why are you such a [jerk]?,” and he grandly replies, “Because that is my true nature. I have found the freedom to express my true nature. And what is more beautiful than truth and freedom?” At this, the audience erupts in cheers.
So one theme is a critique of the absurd state of Art, and Jerome’s attempts to discover whether he can make art that the powers-that-be would approve. There’s also a love story, as he tries to win Audry (Sophia Myles), the brochure’s blonde model, despite her attraction to another student. There’s a murder mystery afoot as well: The Strathmore Strangler is picking off victims on campus. Police efforts to protect students are not merely thankless, however, but are greeted with angry protest. An artwork reads, “We are living in a police state!” When an arrest is made, a student snarls, “Have a nice death, pig!”
Angelica Huston is appealing in a small role as a professor; Steve Buscemi is unbilled, but takes on a noisier role as Broadway Bob, owner of a gallery-café and a self-appointed kingmaker. Jim Broadbent is powerful as another alumnus, a brooding artist in drunken decline, who presents Jerome with another way that an artist’s life can turn out: he “postpones suicide in the hopes that some pestilence will appear and the entire human species will be wiped out.” All these threads come together in a conclusion that gives a pointy jab to the self-regarding, self-validating Art establishment.
Which is, you might think, usually a conservative rather than a liberal theme. That would be true as well of the depiction of the stupid and selfish students, who don’t realize that being protected from a killer is not the same thing as living in a police state. Yet these ideas are contained in a film that includes male and female nudity and an abundance of four-letter words (almost to a self-mocking Big Lebowski extent). There was a similar odd mix of conservative ideas and very raw material in last year’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. (A friend told me, “If it wasn’t for the nudity and obscenity, it could have been made by Focus on the Family.”)
Not everything works in Art School Confidential. Actress Sophia Myles is only five years older than Max Minghella, but here she seems 30 and he seems 17. The romance between them is less than palpable; she treats him fondly, like he’s her kid brother. The suspense that should gather around the Strathmore Strangler doesn’t, quite. But as a wondering, skeptical, sharply observed portrait of Art School and Art Life, it’s terrific.
— Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regularly for NPR’s Morning Edition, Beliefnet.com, Christianity Today, and other publications. She is the author of Gender: Men, Women, Sex and Feminism, among other books.