A while back I wanted to get a copy of the book Cockfighter by Charles Willeford. The one the Monte Hellman movie is based on. I found it in a collection with two other Willeford books, so I read those first. I knew what Cockfighter was about obviously, but the other two I had no idea, so from page 1 on the books had me guessing where the hell they were going, and usually being wrong.
The Pickup starts out with this guy spending his days drinking in bars and finding jobs at diners, who seems to have real bad luck and get in fights everywhere he goes. And he meets this rich girl. Of course you assume she’s gonna be a femme fatale, she’s gonna lead him on and trick him into killing somebody or stealing her father’s money or some shit, but it never happens. Instead they fall in love for real but they have this fucked up Sid and Nancy love. They are tormented and depressed and they bring the book spiraling down into the abyss with them. Before you know it they decide to slit their wrists, and end up in an insane asylum, and it keeps going from there. Even the very last sentence of the book makes you say, “Whuh?” and have to go back and reconsider everything that happened before. I like that.
ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL kind of reminded me of that because this is some weird unexpected mix of genres where you get to the end and realize you had no idea at the beginning that this is the kind of movie you were going to be watching. It’s kind of like a movie and kind of like a dream. This is exactly what most of the reviews I’ve read have criticized (one dude on CHUD even called it “a disaster”), but fuck those guys. It’s a strange movie, it’s very dark and mean, it’s laugh out loud funny and then it slowly becomes creepy and depressing, and that in itself makes it kind of funny. Which means it’s not for everybody and their Aunt Harriet. Although to be fair Aunt Harriet did like BAD SANTA, if I remember right.
As you can tell by the title this is pretty much a full scale assault on the institution of art school. A young nerd named Jerome dreams of being a painter, so he goes to art school. Right away we see that the place is a load of horseshit. Alot of the students clearly have no talent, but bullshit their way through by using conceptual gimmicks and pretentious gibberish explanations of their vision as artists. At one point a professor, John Malkovich, asks a student why he isn’t doing the assignments. The kid makes some asinine explanation about how his work has nothing to do with form or color it’s about blah blah blah so assignments are useless to him. Malkovich thinks about it for a second and says, “I’ll buy that.”
The movie is not all about laughs, but I sure laughed hard at it. The opening credits are a hilarious montage of various art students being dropped off at school by their parents. There is a shot of a barefooted girl stepping confidently out of the car, right into a pile of broken glass, and yelling “FUCK!” This is such a simple joke but it’s still making me smile thinking about it a couple days later because it’s so true about a certain type of person who insists, I am barefoot. I don’t wear shoes. I don’t care what they try to do to keep me down, I don’t care if I’m going to a school in the inner city where there is jagged debris on the ground, I WILL NOT WEAR SHOES.
Alot of the humor is like that, it’s just a dead on observation about ridiculous things we recognize in people we know or in ourselves, that we haven’t seen too much in movies. A few of the jokes are more obvious. Those are the ones that the bad reviews say are the funny part at the beginning before the movie goes in another direction and leaves them behind like a baby in a dumpster.
The writer Daniel Clowes is obviously bringing the real experience of an artist into this story, and he also has a great knowledge of bad art. My favorite bad painting in the movie is one prominently displayed in the background but never commented on, a shitty spray painted cityscape with the words “We are living in a police state” crudely scrawled on it. A masterpiece.
Jerome sort of has a rivalry with a hunky square guy named Jonah, who does paintings of sports cars and tanks and shit like that, that look like they were made by a dude in high school art class in the 1980s. There’s a great scene where the class critiques his painting and they all agree that it’s brilliant because “it’s like he unlearned all the art school bullshit,” which of course is the exact bullshit their parents think they’re paying money for them to learn.
I’m sure artists will love the shit out of this movie (unless it hits too close to home) because it has jokes about having to draw a dude with his schlong hanging out and crap like that. But you don’t have to be a painter. Anybody who has ever had a class where people have to critique creative works, such as a Wednesday night writing class of some kind to name one example, will recognize this stuff. After you sit through enough of these discussions you will stop believing in freedom of speech.
But the brilliance of ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL is that it’s not just about making fun of dumb people at art school. The first half is full of big laughs mostly based on this stuff, and I was surprised how few times it got too broad. (The stuff with Jerome’s filmatist roommate, who looks like the CLERKS guy but is based on the prick from OVERNIGHT, could be more subtle.) But slowly as the movie goes along it turns into kind of a creepy noirish type of picture. There is a strangler loose on campus, and many of the main characters are potential suspects. They’re included but not limited to bitter failed artists such as the Malkovich character (I don’t think I have to tell you whether or not he’s good at playing a jaded, pretentious prick who teaches art) and an almost poisonous alcoholic graduate played by Jim Broadbent, who Jerome’s friend Bardo likes to go to just to laugh at his hateful rants. At least one character turns out to be much more interesting than you realized at first and your feelings toward him or her might change. Or mine did anyway.
I mentioned The Pickup before but the other Willeford book in that collection is more obviously relevant, it’s called The Burnt Orange Heresy. That one’s in the point of view of this egomaniacal art critic who tracks down a reclusive artist and ends up killing him, making paintings supposedly by him and then writing long essays critiquing his own paintings, and believing he’s completely justified. I guess Clowes shares Willeford’s feeling that people who take high art seriously might be fucked in the head. I think Jerome is more sincere than the guy from The Burnt Orange Heresy, but he’s another character where you can’t necessarily take what he says at face value. I think he really does want to be a great artist, but from the opening scenes on it’s pretty clear that he thinks art might be a way to score chicks. So his judgment is clouded. He becomes obsessed with a nude model from his class. This is probaly what allows you to root for Jerome. You can’t blame a guy for liking a girl, and there’s all kinds of uncomfortable courting moments to make you squirm on his behalf.
But what’s really smart is that Jerome is not necessarily better than the other students. He only sees through the bullshit some of the time. He soon tries to do what they’re doing and isn’t even making his own paintings by the end. The movie might be more of a crowdpleaser if it was just about “those guys are idiots, I’m smarter than all them,” but then it would just be a bitter essay about what happened to this writer in art school. Instead it’s a genuine story with a very cynical take no prisoners view of human nature. Audrey, the girl he has a crush on, is probaly the most sympathetic character, but she’s also on the wrong side of alot of things. She’s not some idealized art school babe.
Jerome misunderstands some of what’s going on and does some stupid and mean things. We’re used to seeing that in romantic comedies, it’s called The Affleck Cycle. Guy falls in love, gets pissed off or does something stupid and fucks everything up, but then the guy figures out a way to fix everything and prove he’s sincere and everybody lives happily ever after. ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL doesn’t have that “but” part, exactly. It’s not that kind of party.
Anyway the point is this. I personally like ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL better than GHOST WORLD. Most people won’t, but they got the right to think whatever kind of freaky shit they want to think. We are all born free.
True, GHOST WORLD spoke to a certain type of person that this one doesn’t. And maybe if I went back and watched it again I would change my mind. But my feeling is that ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL at least is a more accomplished movie. In some ways it’s the same but better: more involving story, more interesting world, stranger, creepier, funnier. Zwigoff is getting better at directing this stuff, and he’s definitely starting to make it look better with the lighting and staging and what not. Which is something more comedy directors ought to aspire to.
Normally I probaly wouldn’t review a teen comic strip picture of this type, however I got a history with this writer and director team. I think I might’ve been the first person in the world to review GHOST WORLD. I went to the world premiere anyway, and was the first individual on the internet to put up a review. Before Gene Shalit, before Mike Medved, any of these fuckers. All eating my dust on that one. And to this day they hate me for it, I bet. Not to mention the director, Terry Zwigoff, then went on to direct BAD SANTA. That is one of those movies that got horrible reviews, all of them totally wrong, and is now a beloved classic around the world. In fact after watching it a couple times I would even go so far as to say it is, to me personally, the funniest movie of the 2000s so far. I can’t even think of any serious competition. Of course I have skipped alot of Queen Latifah’s pictures over the years so I might’ve missed one.
I never reviewed BAD SANTA though so you’ll have to take my word for it that I liked it in an actual theater before it was “BADDER SANTA” on the DVD. But that means I got a certain amount of credibility on this one, in my opinion. I’m not saying ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL is necessarily as good as BAD SANTA, or HUMAN NATURE, another movie that got horrible reviews comparing it negatively to previous works by the same author, but that is to me clearly great even if everybody hates it.
So I will continue to enjoy these movies until some day everybody turns around and agrees with me. And I promise on that day I won’t pull some “heh, I used to like it but now it’s old” bullshit. I’ll be right there to welcome you.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.