Monday, April 09, 2007

Rite of Passage

Terry Zwigoff captured the pretensions of art school ennui so vividly in Ghost World (2001) that I expected his more recent feature Art School Confidential (2006) to be a masterpiece. A straight to video affair in Australia, Art School Confidential is about Jerome (Max Minghella) a wannabe Picasso who believes being a famous artist will get him laid. Poor virgin hasn't had a great time convincing the ladies of his worth. Actually no one at art school thinks much of Jerome. Anyone can be a "Picasshole" it seems. And who would give Jerome a second glance – he basically goes to art school because of the supposed "erotics" of life drawing. First myth of art school is that life drawing is the most fucking boring thing you'll ever do, and the skanks who pose in real life usually stink of whatever is leaking from their unattractive junkie stained bodies.

But art school doesn't have a home in real life anymore. (I'm not sure if that has anything to do with the fact that Sydney art schools seem to be either closing down or restructuring themselves out of existence). As Zwigoff's film has it, art school – like a lot of art – is the stuff of cliché. Jerome's art school buddy Bardo (Joel David Moore) rightly point out that the school is littered with human clichés. There's the pretentious art theory idiot, the kiss-ass dork, the angry lesbian, the meditating hippy and the mature age back at school mum. Even Bardo notes that he's the embodiment of art school cliché: the drop out who keeps repeating the first year of different majors until finding an interest that sticks. But here at art school, everyone may as well drop out because as Professor Sandiford (John Malkovich) points out, only one in a hundred will make a living from being an artist. Of course Sandiford is yet another cliché: the art school instructor whose own career is a long-running gag whose punchline no one gets anymore. When Jerome sees Sandiford's geometric paintings, he inquires how long he's been into the "triangle thing". "I was one of the first" is Sandiford's reply.

The rest of the plot's not even worth fleshing out. There's Audrey, the boring blond life model (Sophia Myles) who actually fulfils Jerome's fantasy of idealised erotic muse. There's even a silly subplot about a serial campus strangler. There's a wasted cast of Jim Broadbent as a disillusioned alcoholic artist – perhaps the slurring is enough justification for the weird UK/US hybrid accent. Angelica Huston is sadly extraneous in two brief scenes as a art history professor with great legs. And while the dialogue is not nearly as funny as it thought it was, there's some corkers, the best occurring when Jerome is criticised by a class mate for being "so September 10".

Art school has become a ridiculous place where one goes seeking authenticity but leaves corrupted at best. The basic message of Art School Confidential is that the supposedly good artist (Jerome) will never be noticed, let alone taken seriously. The bad artist – usually naïve "outsider" type – gets the girl and the attention. Phony art "crit" talk is used to talk up the bad art as something that is good precisely because it has "unlearned" representation or some such shit. Phil Morrison's Junebug (2005) and John Waters' Pecker (1998) did much better jobs of depicting art world tryhards getting all wet over "outsider" nowness. Even TV shows like The L Word and Six Feet Under have made better (read entertaining) situations out of stock art school archtypes. In series four of The L Word, Bette Porter (Jennifer Beals) becomes Dean of an LA art college and gets to fuck a student before turning attention to the deaf lesbian artist in residence (Marlee Matlin). In series three of Six Feet Under, Claire Fisher (Lauren Ambrose) "finds herself" after experimenting with collage, chemicals, chicks. Real rite of passage stuff. Come to think of it, where there's a rite of passage, there's bound to be a few overused clichés. And it seems they get no more relentlessly regurgitated than in depictions of that thing we call art school.


Anonymous said...

I hope Zwigoff or someone else makes a film about S. Clay Wilson.

Skanky Jane said...

The Artswipe is my favourite art school.


Skanky Jane said...

Hey GG - just checked out Clay Wilson - thanks for that lead!


lauren said...

great post artswipe - thanks to you, i won't bother hiring it from the video store or looking for it on youtube. i think i got the general gist of it and if i'm really craving some live artschool action, i can pop into one in my capital city.

Anonymous said...

SJ: Ain't he great? Such innovative composition.

jade said...

mm yes i saw this movie too pretty poor gosh he just wanted to get the stupid girl pah