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Movie Review: Art School Confidential

Art School Confidential

It’s still hard to believe that Spalding Gray is dead. Not only that he’s dead, but that he committed suicide by jumping into the East River a little over two years ago.

I saw Spalding perform live once years ago when I was a sophomore in film school at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT); film school not being much different than the setting of Art School Confidential. That year, my documentary video production teacher, Joan Boccino, showed us Swimming to Cambodia in class and it was just a few weeks later that Spalding was coming to perform at an arts space in the city.

Swimming was like a revelation to me, one of those “I can’t believe stuff like this exists” kind of moments. I was young and still relatively unfamiliar with the arts, so Spalding’s style of monologue performance was a completely new world. I was already a big fan of autobiographical storytelling in comics, particularly that of Harvey Pekar, which is probably why I was so naturally attracted to Spalding’s work.

When Spaulding came to Rochester, it was to perform Monster in a Box, which he was perfecting on the road before debuting the show in NYC. But as excited as I was to see him, I couldn’t get anyone to go with me. I guess Swimming to Cambodia didn’t have the same effect on the other students in Joan’s class like it did on me. But, I went by myself and it was one of the real highlights of my time at RIT, an enlightening experience I recall very fondly.

There are no moments like this in Art School Confidential, a film that is too cynical for its own good and its goofy art students are too easy a target for the filmmakers, director Terry Zwigoff and writer Dan Clowes. Goofy art students are too easy a target for any filmmaker. Most films about college, if not all of them, has the one bizarre art student who is usually the roommate of the movie’s “straight” main character. Art School Confidential follows this same exact formula where all of the students are nuts while the main character, Jerome (Max Minghella), is supposedly the only normal guy even though he’s also an art student along with everybody else.

Jerome tells everybody at school that he wants to become a great artist even know it’s clear he’s just into art to get girls, and not only girls in general, but the most beautiful girl in the entire film, Audrey (Sophia Myles). From the get go, Audrey seems like a shallow creep with relationship issues, but Jerome pursues her relentless only because he fell in love with her picture in a school brochure, thus making him a shallow creep so you’d think they’d be a perfect match, but they’re not.

Jerome is also the audience’s voice to point out how ridiculous his fellow students are and how ridiculous their attitude towards art is. When we are first introduced to all of these characters, the film feels like its setting up for a fun comedy. However, as the movie goes on, we see that just about everybody in it is either a jerkoff, an asshole, a moron, a pretentious buffoon or any combination thereof.

Zwigoff and Clowes of course previously collaborated on Ghost World, which was also darkly cynical like Art School Confidential and filled with many unlikeable characters. But at the heart of Ghost World laid a real caring, albiet very bizarre, relationship between the main character Enid and the middle-aged nerd Seymour. There’s a real joyful, touching moment at the end of the film when Enid calls Seymour her hero. These are two characters who, although their circumstances make their relationship difficult, really learn from each other and together grow out of the cynical prisons they built for themselves.

But instead of a touching relationship moving the plot of Ghost World along, what lies at the heart of Art School Confidential is an uninvolving murder storyline. Putting the murder “mystery” (I’m a little loathe to use that term, since it’s not very mysterious) into the film seemed somewhat uncharacteristic of screenwriter Dan Clowes, until I remembered that my first encounter with his work as a comic book writer/artist was his creation Lloyd Llewellyn, a sort of hipster detective. I would come across Lloyd stories in various comic anthologies and I could never really get into them, which pushed me from reading Dan’s work for many years even though I probably would have enjoyed his now legendary Eightball series.

Art School Confidential isn’t a totally unenjoyable movie. Parts of it are extremely funny and I really enjoyed Joel Moore‘s performance as Jerome’s only “friend.” But I feel more let down by it. Had the murder story been taken out and if the main character — or any character in the film — had experienced something, anything joyous about seeing the world from a fresh perspective, this could have been a great movie.