“I am a genius” is the first thing anyone says in Art School Confidential. That would be young Jerome, the protagonist, standing before his provincially suburban high school classmates dressed as his idol, Pablo Picasso. Other facts about Jerome: Bullies torment him; girls ignore him; the world will one day recognize him; and the movie he’s in, if for no other reason than because it was written by Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff, will savagely disillusion him. We know immediately that Jerome is no Picasso, and we will get to watch him find out.
In Art School Confidential, like in real life, nobody’s just a hero or a villain, a hack or a genius. Those old categories seem trite and worn out. But most everybody is a bit of a bullshit artist.
Adapted by Clowes from a popular installment of his serial comic Eightball, this is the second movie collaboration between him and Zwigoff, who share an artfully disaffected sensibility and worry a lot about how to be both graceful and genuine in a maliciously mercenary, hyper-image-conscious world. Their first work together was the 2001 adaptation of Clowes’ elegantly listless graphic novel Ghost World, about two callow but jaded teenage girls who grope for their place in bleary post-high-school life and brook its expected disappointments with tenacious, deadpan mockery.
But what of Art School‘s poor Jerome? Should we admire or feel sorry for a kid who goes to college specifically to become the greatest artist of the 21st century, and who chooses the school based on his hots for the nude model in its brochure? Jerome, as portrayed by Max Minghella, is not exactly a guileless, affable striver; Clowes and Zwigoff take him about as far away from genius as you can get, depicting the poor lad, by turns, as both a craven nonentity and a lazy poseur.
When his fellow artistes—introduced early in a parade of phonies and self-evident hacks—do preposterous or pretentious work, Jerome does manage to speak up on behalf of taste and merit, but it’s not as if he has any original ideas himself. As another student observes, “Jerome is totally in the box.” He gets an A, but so does everybody else. His role models–John Malkovich as the art professor hunching on the ledge between for real and full of it, and Jim Broadbent as the embittered has-been art-school graduate–are dubious at best. And not only must he contend with the preppy jock whose naively primitivist pictures get all the attention, especially from that model Jerome had his eye on, but there is also the matter of the campus serial killer.
Whether it’s a masterstroke or a tragic flaw, Art School Confidential feels like many kinds of movie in one. If it isn’t quite a coming-of-age story, or a black comedy, or a romance, or a mystery thriller, that’s because it has tried dressing itself in those genres’ conventions, only to decide they all look pretentiously silly. The weary ambivalence that remains–Clowes and Zwigoff are trying for tone in which crudity and sophistication cancel each other’s denials–will rub many viewers the wrong way, but it is one of the movie’s most forceful expressions.
At risk of giving too much away, it may be said that the filmmakers do allow Jerome some success—but only as a function of celebrity, and that from a potent compound of fraudulence and criminal violence. Even as it disavows eye-of-the-beholder pieties, Art School Confidential betrays a suspicion of refined beauty as too precious, not real enough. The filmmakers seem to figure that most of us have given up trying to decide what’s good anyway; having burned out, perhaps, on postmodern confusion, we’ve settled for what we think we recognize. And so we have a culture so ravenous for “authentic” art that we’ll even fake it if we have to. Clowes and Zwigoff have anticipated this sorry state we’re in, even if they don’t know how to get us out of here.