Souls Stripped Bare

Art School Confidential

Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, Matt Keeslar, John Malkovich, and Jim Broadbent star in a film written by Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff.

Reviewed by Josef Woodard

For the past decade, iconoclastic director Terry Zwigoff has periodically sent out beautifully wicked little missives from the fringes of the American movie scene. What began with the startlingly good documentary Crumb led to the quirky jewel Ghost World and the delicious black comedy Bad Santa.

By this point, Zwigoff is entitled to a goof, and it has arrived in the form of the strangely uneven, purpose-challenged Art School Confidential. Based on Daniel Clowes’s (also behind Ghost World) graphic novel, the story seems like the writer’s sour-grapes tirade against the follies of art school and contemporary art in general. It joins a small but intriguing group of films in recent years dealing with the fine-art scene, including Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Shape of Things. In these films, actions in the name of art verge on moral crime stories.

Our protagonist is a young suburban artist (Max Minghella) who defies his family’s pragmatic wishes and goes to study art at Strathmore. His old-school drawing and rendering skills, not to mention his romantic views of love and the female form, put him at odds with an art school curriculum high on concept. He’s aghast when fellow students he sees as inferior win favor in the system.

One student’s childlike picture of a car elicits kudos from the teacher (John Malkovich). Says one student about the work, “It’s like he figured out how to unlearn all the typical art school bullshit. It’s really great.” Another notes, pompously, that “it has the singularity of outsider art, though the conscious rejection of spatial dynamics could only come from an intimacy of the conventions of picture-making.” Meanwhile, our hero rolls his eyes and heads back to the easel.

Jim Broadbent — like Bad Santa with a paint brush and a pickled, cynical brain — plays a Strathmore grad and washed-up artist, now a drunk living in a rent-controlled rat hole. He makes dour pronouncements about the innate corruption of the art world and humanity, and calls Picasso “a nasty little dwarf who went his whole life without a single original thought.” In a rare tender moment, he explains to our young hero why an artist puts up with so much pain: “He lives only for that one moment of narcotic bliss.”

For all its elements of delight and oddity, Art School Confidential is a well-meaning, fuzzy-headed mess. A satirical poke at contemporary art, it also weaves in a suspense angle concerning a serial strangler and a surprisingly standard-issue love story angle, all in search of a purpose or a meaning. Kind of a like a young artist in search of self or a bankable shtick.

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