Street Date 11/6/18;
Rated ‘R’ for language including sexual references, nudity and a scene of violence.
Stars Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent.
Something of a halfway follow-up to Ghost World, which thoroughly ambushed me in 2001 by becoming my favorite movie of the past 20 years more than any alternative I can come up with, 2006’s Art School Confidential remains the last feature to date of Terry Zwigoff. Despite what I still think are some non-fatal miscalculations on Confidential’s part (in addition to maybe 20 guffaws), this pop cultural loss illustrates, as much as anything, the degree to which mass movie entertainment has gone largely to hell over the past two or three decades. And I say this knowing that the film wasn’t very well received at the time when all sorts of all-out crummy movies were amassing passing grades from both critics and the marketplace.
As one would discern from one who made a documentary as singularly personal as 1995’s Crumb, Zwigoff isn’t the product of any tony film school — a sub-culture which, by the way, comes in for its own attendant ribbing here. This — or possibly the fact that Zwigoff notes on one of this Blu-ray’s carryover bonus extras that his past jobs included stacking humidifiers — likely gave him insight into the fringe culture that near-exclusively populates World and Confidential (both films share the same writer, Daniel Clowes, who first created the former as a graphic novel). Both creators, pretty sure, actually attended art school, and this newer film is a logical extension of the uproarious art class sequences in Ghost World. And they’re also the best thing about Confidential unless you have a thing for co-lead Sophia Myles (guilty, Your Honor).
Diffident protagonist Jerome is played by Max Minghella, son of choreographer Carolyn Choa and the late director Anthony Minghella, who pulled off the impressive triple of The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain (his preceding Truly Madly Deeply also has enthusiastic admirers, though it left me cold at the time). Unlike some of his classmates, Jerome seems to be in art school for the right reason: becoming an artist instead of postponing gainful employment — with the latter malady one that afflicts everyone on the premises, instructors included. Either Clowes or Zwigoff — though the bonus materials note that they largely think alike, anyway — has noted that a key challenge here was making the displays of classroom art here so near-uniformly awful that even novice viewers will know they’re bad. Many of these specimens, which must have been fun to concoct, are as wretched as the wall displays pictured in the remedial Illeana Douglas class that Thora Birch is forced to take along with several of the other social misfits in Ghost World.
In Confidential’s case, the teacher is played by the ever-invaluable John Malkovich as a largely non-judgmental type — possibly or probably because he’s bored with teaching and looking for his next step up the totem pole. A key comic theme here is that almost no one involved with this class is ever going to earn a dime. Yet to compound Jerome’s litany of humiliations, an artist who has made it at least commercially (Adam Scott) shows up to rub the students’ noses in his success, much like the Alec Baldwin character does to the swampland salesmen/slaves in the role David Mamet added to the splendid movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross.
A more representative example is a seedy artist who lives on or near campus in an apartment that you have to believe couldn’t escape health department condemnation in the lowest-rent districts of Calcutta. He’s played by Jim Broadbent, who certainly looks the part in a shirt dotted with food stains likely going back a couple decades (a work of art itself). This is the milieu suburban-backgrounded Jerome finds himself in, and it so approximates my own reaction from the days I was the naively white-bread class leper in NYU’s cinema studies program that there’s no way I could ever be a detractor of this movie. And to be sure, film school education gets gooned on here as well, given the Jerome roomie who has aggressively put the touch on his innocent grandfather to bankroll his unwatchable slasher movie. If you take note of the “acknowledgement” credits at the end of the Illeana Douglas character’s own student film that we see in Ghost World, you’ll see that she hit her parents up for funding herself. This is one of the universals that pretty well offer proof that Zwigoff and Clowes know exactly what they’re doing.
Then again, there’s something about having a real serial killer on campus dispatching victims — and in brutal fashion that in one scene pays direct homage to Strangers on a Train atop nearly approaching Peeping Tom in brutal intensity — that seems contrived and out of rhythm, even though it leads to some funny bits. (Of course, scrapping it would have meant a rewrite from the ground up.) On much firmer ground is the relationship between Jerome and Audrey (Myles), a slightly older nude model and collector of men — one who’s almost as messed up as everyone else in the movie, though she puts on a cooler front. Jerome is besotted and becomes desperate for success to prove himself worthy of her. You can see from all this why some of the students are in the class just to enjoy the nude models, though one of the women is understandably put off when one of the male posers thrusts his so-to-speak manhood in her face on his way to the dressing room after the session is wrapped.
All this leads to a conclusion that, of all things, brings me to mind of Paul Schrader’s otherwise standout First Reformed from earlier this year — in that it makes sense intellectually (that is, you can see what the filmmaker was trying to do) but doesn’t play particularly well and thus detracts from the rest. The rest, however, is full of been-there comic observations that give Confidential a distinct point of view, and comedies with both a strong POV and genuine wit may be the rarest movie species these days. Though it was true as well in 2006, the year I got out of first-run reviewing.
This Blu-ray release is basically a replication of the old Sony DVD, but the colors have added vibrancy, and this is no small consideration in a movie about art (though added pigment intensity can’t do much with Broadbent’s apartment). A couple of the bonus deleted scenes add to the dark party, but perhaps including them in the finished film would have compromised its overall rhythm, for which 102 minutes feels just about right.