It's hard to think of an academic environment more ripe for ridicule than an art school, with its contingents of puffed-up undergraduate poseurs and pompous-fraud teachers sloshing around in a familiar marinade of whiney political correctness. Terry Zwigoff's "Art School Confidential" takes aim at this farcical subculture and scores a direct hit. It's a mercilessly funny movie.
Jerome Platz (Max Minghella), a naive suburban kid with a talent for drawing, has always dreamed of becoming a great artist. So when college time comes, he's off to the Strathmore Institute, a small East Coast art school, where we see him arriving along with a herd of other higher-ed archetypes: the tattooed Goth girl, the barefoot hippie chick, the Jesus-like vegan, the angry lesbian. Then Jerome meets his roommates: Vince (Ethan Suplee), a beefy, bellowing motor-mouth filmmaker (he's a cross between Quentin Tarantino and "Boondock Saints" director-buffoon Troy Duffy), and Matthew (Nick Swardson), a fashion student who's arrived with his own sewing machine and a quaint hope that no one will guess that he's gay. (Everyone guesses it immediately; no one cares.)
Jerome has no carefully cultivated personal eccentricities, and as an artist, he's strictly representational — he draws and paints recognizable human forms. He's not great, but he's not bad, and he wants to get better. At Strathmore, though, he's a cornball, a hopeless philistine. His fellow students, although unencumbered by talent, are deeply schooled in the clichés of late-modern art. They turn out squiggly Cy Twombley imitations, early-Chris-Burden "performance" homages, trite Warhol knock-offs (a tinted photo-series of naked butts), and of course sub-Jenny Holzer word assemblages. (One student's "painting" consists of the phrase, "Kill a Cop"). Jerome can't believe that anybody would mistake this second-hand attitudinizing for art. He has a lot to learn. (A fellow student indicates the prevailing ethos when he earnestly explains, "My work has nothing to do with form or light or color.")
Strathmore's teachers are mostly failed artists. One of them, Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich), specializes in painting unadorned geometrical forms. "How long have you been doing the triangles?" Jerome asks him. "A long time," Sandiford says. "I was one of the first."
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Also on the scene is the "Strathmore Strangler," a serial killer who stalks the adjacent streets of the unnamed city in which the Institute is situated. As the Strangler's body count mounts, local police — no lovers of art or art students — move in to grill and hassle the kids at an off-campus hangout called Broadway Bob's. (Its obstreperous proprietor is played — uncredited, for some reason — by Steve Buscemi.) Jerome's roommate, Vince, thinks the Strangler's brutal predations will make a great movie — a wise-cracking hipster flick, a la "Reservoir Dogs," perhaps. Before long, the cops think they know who the killer is. So does Jerome. The cops are wrong.
This eccentric setup is a perfect frame for a series of tart social observations, pungent lines and witty blackout gags, all courtesy of screenwriter Daniel Clowes (the noted comic-book artist with whom Zwigoff also collaborated on his 2001 "Ghost World.") The movie has a beautiful color design, rising from deep, rich browns into bright, primary reds and yellows. And it's lovingly lit — Zwigoff really knows how to orchestrate penumbral shadows, and how to rig up a gush of sunlight to drench an interior wall. There's a clarity to his effects, and a skilful simplicity to his staging, that are distinctively his own; they're entrancing. In addition, he uses classical music (Strauss and Brahms) to help steer the film away from the light college comedy into which, in other hands, it might have devolved.
Although its focus is on the specific absurdities of an art school, the movie also strikes glancing blows at the dunderheaded PC yammering now common in colleges of all sorts. Walking thoughtfully along a wall full of student works, Professor Sandiford pauses before one that's emblazoned with the angry words, "We Live in a Police State." Turning to the young artists gathered around, he says, with an approving smirk, "Ain't that truth?"
Ain't it, indeed.
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