Art School Rejects

Breakfast with Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes

Just as I'm about to ask my next question, I'm extracted from Zwigoff and whisked across the dining room to another table, where Daniel Clowes patiently awaits, blessed with a semi-angelic face that betrays a bad case of the humanitas. Warmth, humility, intensity and oblique calm—all that good stuff, right there on the front of his head, for all to see. And he claims to be drinking a $27 glass of juice. We talk art schools—his Pratt, my UCLA and CalArts—with an emphasis on the drawing instructors who were so very unhelpfully positive about everything.

"I was the character like Jerome," says Clowes. "One day, I thought, 'This is just not helpful—being complimentary all the time—so I'm going to actually be critical.' And I was very, I thought, constructively critical of somebody, who then got absolutely crushed and started crying over the mildest criticism. And from then on, I was the one that everyone was 'allowed' to criticize. They all kept complimenting each other, but it was like, every week, whatever I'd bring in . . . 'Okay, well yours is . . .,' and they would just funnel all their critical ire toward my thing. So of course I learned to never do that again. Just go back to the 'Yes, it's nice' crap. 'Keep going in that direction.'"

"We had a guy at UCLA who was disturbingly similar to your undercover-cop character," I say, referring to Art School's clean-cut, unwitting savant Jonah, played by Matt Keeslar. "He was like a Christian guy. He wore a gold cross, Polo shirts and snappy pastel slacks. And he talked like John Wayne."

"Wow! We had a Christian also," says Clowes. "He'd come in and do these kind of Thomas Kinkade paintings, and was so out of place that he was absolutely The Weirdo. He would wear golf pants to class. 'What are you doing? It's Brooklyn!' You know, 'We're all punks. What are you?' It made us feel like maybe we're the conformists."

"Our guy—he was a really nice guy, actually, and probably a better artist than me. He just looked like Houston aristocracy."

"Yeah. That's what this guy was like. Like a rich guy from Orange County."

"And we used to wonder if maybe he was a narc. But then, no. No narc would go undercover at an art school like that. Unless he was a genius."

We move on to the subject of financing the scam. "That was a thing I didn't have to go through," says Clowes. "My entire college education was $8,000 for four years, because it was so long ago, and I got little scholarships."

"Jesus! Pratt must be 20 or 30 thousand a year now."

"Yeah. Eight grand was still a lot of money, but I eventually did pay that off. Now, if you're, like, $80,000 in debt from art school, good luck! You're going to be in debt forever. Forget it. You better marry a doctor. That was an element I almost put in the film—the outrageous outlay of cash involved. But I sort of implied that however much you're paying, it's probably too much."

"At CalArts," I say, "I got the idea that most of the students had family money. There were some people making interesting work, but most of it was like a country club for film-industry spawn. On the plus side, though, they did have a naked swimming pool."

"Did they really?"

"They did. I'd heard about it, but never experienced it until I went looking into student housing. I got lost, and ended up getting directions from two gorgeous, nude sunbathing girls. They had nipples and everything, even though CalArts is a Disney school."

"That must be quite a draw. Unless they're just doing that during, you know, sweeps week, when they're trying to get people to come."

"Yeah. 'You girls go out by the pool and look naked, until we get enrollment up.'"

"So the film—it's kind of made for people like you, I'm afraid," says Clowes. "Which doesn't speak well for the box-office phase."

"On the contrary," I insist. "Most Americans are ex-art students soon to be fired from the LA Weekly for their poor interview skills. Mark my words: Clowes and Zwigoff make a killing and retire to suburban Houston and Orange County, where they take to wearing gold crosses and pastel golf pants and are never heard from again. The end."

Clowes eyes me for a moment in silence. "Where are you from, originally?" he asks at last.

"Champaign, Illinois."

"Is that right? Like John Malkovich."

"Nearby. I think he's from Franklin County."

"I have a friend in Chicago, and you remind me so much of him. I feel like I'm talking to him. It's very weird. You guys have the exact same sense of humor."

"Same cadences, even?"

"Yeah, identical. And you look a little bit like him. It's eerie. Of course, he also went to art school."

"Yeah. That's how it happens."

This piece originally appeared inLA Weekly, which is why we let the Orange County digs slip through.

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