Editor's note—J. Hoberman reviews Art School Confidential here.
As in a dream, Jesus brings me a side of scrambled eggs. He wears a big smile and a shiny name tag, every hair in place. Brings me coffee, too. All around us are ancient hardwood, marble and finery, windows looking north onto the sidewalks of downtown Beverly Hills, high ceilings mixing a hundred hearty, rumbling conversations and delicate clinks of porcelain and silver into a genteel cacophony that wreaks havoc on my cheap-ass microphone.
I thank Jesus, dig into my eggs and return my attentions to Terry Zwigoff, acclaimed director of Crumb, Ghost World and now Art School Confidential, whom Jesus has already provided with a Spa Breakfast: seasonal smoothie, egg-white omelet, turkey bacon, bran muffins, coffee or tea for $25.
Just a few minutes into our short relationship, I sense in Zwigoff's countenance—a pallid mix of Charlie Chaplin and Gene Wilder, set off by a black shock of Tim Burton top-hairs—a healthy distrust of anyone hired to ask him questions. Fair enough: In the past, the press widely misreported Zwigoff as having fallen out with his longtime friend, the cartoonist R. Crumb, which was probably pretty annoying. I wouldn't trust me, either. Still, he offers me his turkey bacon, which is awfully kind and awfully delicious, and throws in a muffin as well.
Finding oneself suddenly breakfasting with famous strangers in the Regent Beverly Wilshire dining room following two hours' sleep in a cold garage is not an effective way to convince oneself that one is, in fact, awake. Then there's the issue of tables. Instead of one big breakfast with muffins and coffee for all, the interview has been divided into two interviews at two tables: a short one here with Zwigoff, followed by an even shorter one across the room with Daniel Clowes. I suck down multiple coffees, attempting higher levels of vigilance, while Zwigoff relates one of the pleasant complications of working with John Malkovich, who, in addition to playing Art School's coddling Professor Sandiford, produced the film (like Ghost World before it) through his Mr. Mudd production company.
"John has this quality about him that is very unsettling to me," says Zwigoff, slowly and evenly, partitioning his egg-white omelet with an extremely expensive fork. "I used to think it stemmed from his body of work, and the fact that he often plays villains. But then I realized that it's because I always think he's being sarcastic. The bigger he smiles and the more polite he is, the more I interpret it as sarcasm, even though I've come to learn that it's sincere."
Art School Confidential's progenitor was a four-page comic-book story created by Clowes, one of the past few decades' most revered and accomplished cartoonists, as part of his popular Eightballperiodical series (which also spawned, in serialized form, Clowes' utterly engrossing graphic novels Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World and Pussey!). Art School Confidential the comic is a series of character studies connected by a conspicuously Clowes-like narrator, a "freelance undercover agent" whose mission is to reveal "the shocking truth about the biggest scam of the century!"—art school.
In the film, that mission has been reduced to a pleasant undercurrent in a script that blends cold satire, bildungsroman and murder mystery. A school-yard bully's fists start things off, eclipsing the screen of its light and giving the audience the perspective of the victim. Sensitive young Jerome Platz (Max Minghella) emerges from that beating to embark on the path of the American artist: more beatings, followed by enrollment at Strathmore (as in the ubiquitous drawing pads) University, a small, Pratt-like private school located in something resembling Brooklyn on the outside, and UCLA's North Campus on the inside.
Like the characters in Zwigoff's earlier films, the protagonists of Art School Confidential are unsettled souls, isolated, eccentric, defining themselves by their relationships with mainstream culture. The Crumb brothers steer clear of it—voluntarily or otherwise—as does Ghost World's Enid Coleslaw, though doing so means parting ways with family and friends. But Jerome's emotional isolation eventually takes a physical form that brings about, in a delightfully absurd way, respect from the corrupt art world, and money from the abominable mainstream. It even (sort of) gets him the girl.
There are wonderful performances from Malkovich, Anjelica Huston, Steve Buscemi and Jack Ong among others, but I—a crotchety, penniless art-school graduate myself—was especially drawn to the character of Jimmy, a withered but fast-tongued, crotchety, penniless, Slivovitz-swilling once-upon-a-time Strathmore student, rendered superbly by veteran character wizard Jim Broadbent. It's a connection Zwigoff admits that he shares too.
"I always think of myself as a bitter, failed artist," he says. "Mr. Broadbent was one of the most extraordinary actors I've ever had the privilege to work with. For some reason, he popped into my mind as soon as I read the script. I like his mild-mannered appearance and, obviously, he's a great actor. I think the studio at that point was less enthused—I'd just cast two other British actors [Minghella and Sophia Myles], and they thought I was putting together some sort of Royal Shakespeare Theater Company."
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.
"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."
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"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.