In which I finally watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.
Why Did I Buy It?
I was psyched when this was out in theaters in 2005. Its producer/director (Terry Zwigoff) made Crumb, which I love. I mean love: Crumb is #34 on my list of favorite DVDs. And he’d teamed up once before with this writer (Daniel Clowes) to make Ghost World, which is #120—not too shabby! But the minute this movie showed itself in theaters, word spread that it was bad, so all my moviegoing friends suddenly had hair to wash that night. I sighed and moved on. CUT TO: Years later I saw what instantly became my favorite Doctor Who episode, The Girl in the Fireplace. I looked up the Girl and noted she was also in Art School Confidential. Days later I found the DVD used for six dollars.
Why’d I Never Watch It?
As I walked out of the store, a friend called. I told her I was psyched I’d just bought Art School Confidential. Her reaction was “No! Don’t!” And she was exactly the friend who’d like a movie about art school. Cautioned, on that same walk home I called a second friend. He said, “Oh God. You own that now?” I tried to explain that the Girl in the Firepl— “Seriously, no matter who you think is going to be good in it,” he said, “You’ll be sorry.”
Now, Thanks to Cassmasterflash’s Game of Life of Broken Dreams, I Know What I’ve Been Missing.
The movie opens on a 6th-grader named Jerome getting punched like crazy by playground bullies. I guess it’s comical, because the sound effects are Rocky-sized while his face looks undamaged. But not TOO comical, because bullying is a Serious Issue and he looks miserable and we must sympathize with our hero. Later, he draws a picture of himself dumping poop on the bullies—sweet useless revenge!—which of course wins him only more punches, in a style that would cause blood and possibly coma if this movie tried being real. Which it doesn’t.
So what is it trying? Like, Jerome’s poop drawing IS real. It’s pretty much all you’d expect from a kid, or it’s even less (maybe you’d expect it from a kid in 3rd or 4th grade?). But I don’t think we’re really meant to notice the drawing. We’re just supposed to let it signal that the movie is going to be about his revenge on the world, I guess? Past that I’m not sure. (Incidentally, that is not what the movie ends up being about.) Are we supposed to think, “Ha, great poop drawing! This kid’s a riot!”? Seems unlikely. The poop drawing does not transcend its straight-from-the-mind-of-a-kid-ness.
Which might be okay, but in the NEXT scene Jerome is giving a report to class and he definitely transcends being 11. It’s one of those reports where you dress like the person and “talk about yourself,” which means deliver your report first person, e.g., “I basically invented modern art” instead of “Picasso invented it.” Okay sure, but this results in our hero (age 11 or 12) explaining that Picasso is great because even though he’s short and bald, being a great artist means—well, look:
At 00:01:35, this movie just set a record. The whole works off the rails in fastest time. No 11-year-old bully-target stands in front of his class to talk about how great it’s going to be to get laid. Seriously wtf is this movie hoping to be? But there you go: in 95 seconds you’ve already got all the problems of motive, humor, stuff you’re not supposed to think about, shaky acting, what kind of reality, and painful dialog that will plague the rest of your minutes here. Wheee.
Anyway, we jump to high school. Naturally Jerome is trying to get into girls’ pants by drawing them. But naturally the girls only dig the jerks. And the jerks spend their spare time yelling at Jerome, “Hey queerbait!” Zoof, everyone in this movie who is not an artist will spend his 8 seconds onscreen yelling “Hey homo!”
Let us imagine for a moment a Hypothetical Fan of this movie. The Fan will explain these excesses by saying “Ah, the movie is weaving an exaggerated reality, creating a whole world that is not our own but that reflects the values of our own writ large.” Luckily I have a counterargument: No.
Because any fake reality depends on consistency. Whatever the rules are, stick to them. You can’t suddenly say but this one vampire doesn’t sparkle, or this dragon that follows Calisi just one day doesn’t. You can’t painstakingly establish FOR EXAMPLE that your hero suffers debilitating shyness with cute girls and then have him confidently grab his dream girl’s hand and say “Let’s get out of here.” NOT EVEN IF HE NEEDS TO DO THAT BECAUSE IF HE DOESN’T THERE’S NO PLOT. Think of a different way to have a plot. Abide by your rules, or you don’t have an exaggerated reality, you have a dumb mess.
But that’s what this movie is, throughout: Whatever the preset plot needs, that’s what the characters do. Shy guy isn’t shy for one minute so he can get the girl, check. Angry defensive drunk lets all his defenses down for two seconds so the shy guy can overpower him, check. Worldly chick sheds all personality to fall for zero, supercheck. There’s no point in paying attention to any character’s personality or arc because it will just change when the plot needs it to.
John Malkovich (Jerome’s teacher) gets stuck with one of the hardest scenes because he has to tag three plot points in three minutes and each one requires a completely different mood. It is more like a dare than a scene. First Jerome walks in and overhears him on the phone – that’s how we learn that even the best teacher is failing as an artist, because a gallery is turning him down; Malkovich is hurt and furious. Then, as if that didn’t happen, he gives Jerome the friendly, inspirational speech needed to put our hero onto experimenting with different painting styles (so that Jerome can fail at that and make worse decisions). THEN, that achieved, Malkovich puts his hand on Jerome’s knee very suggestively, because the plot also needs Jerome to continue feeling alienated with no place to turn. Oh, yeah, and: there’s been no previous hint that the teacher is into boys, and there’s no subsequent hint of it. It is just made up on the spot, does its plot job, and gets dropped.
Okay, while we’re on a gay moment, let’s go back to all that “Hey homo!” yelling. Clearly, this move wants you to understand it is very upset that the world will yell “Fag!” at its sensitive types. So, when the movie presents its gay characters, WHY does it make them angry mulleted dykes and mincing lads? Every time! The movie REALLY wants you to know exactly who the real homos are. They might as well be wearing pink stars. No thuggish moron in the movie points and yells “Fag!” as much as the movie itself does, and that is sort of weird. (Also, there’s a whole angry conversation about how becoming a successful artist requires you to be good at fellatio, which I think is meant metaphorically, but either way, here is my question: ?????????)
I guess this as good a place as any to recap the plot. Let’s do it fast, in 3 paragraphs.
(1) Jerome enrolls at Strathmore Art College because a girl in the brochure is pretty. Most of his fellow students are assholes; a famous alum who visits (Adam Scott for no reason) is the biggest asshole of all, and he gives a speech about how being an asshole is crucial to being a true artist. Jerome’s eyes light up at this, but he never acts on it, so the advice is there just for you the viewer to run with. Then, as one does in college, Jerome meets the girl in the brochure. Her name is Audrey and she is genuinely interesting, mainly because of an intense scene with her dad (which the movie never follows up on). Jerome decides she is his muse. She starts dating a better-looking classmate with a more convincing personality, but Jerome paints her a bunch anyway.
(2) His fellow students hate his art. Craving approval, he stops painting Audrey to paint the abstract stuff everyone else is into. But then they deride him as having no style of his own. So, for the Big Art Show Final, he steals a bunch of paintings from a forgotten recluse downtown and passes them off as his own. These depict dead bodies, so now everyone hates Jerome for trying to look tough. Sad, he goes to the roof to jump off, and that’s when cops arrest him for being a serial killer. Obviously the recluse was a serial killer, and his paintings are mixed-media things that include stuff like the victims’ hair and driver’s licenses. Hahah, busted. Oh—almost forgot, during the Big Art Show Final, Audrey the former muse spots one of Jerome’s original paintings in a trashpile, digs it out, and finally she falls in love.
(3) Too late. Jerome goes to jail. Because, see, he refuses to say he didn’t paint the murder stuff. He’s a famous (serial killer) artist now, and whatever he paints (on death row) is worth a twagillion dollars. Audrey visits to talk on the prison phone. They kiss through the glass. The end.
I feel like you get the idea (don’t see this movie), but I can’t stop. Here’s a quick list of details this movie couldn’t be bothered to get right, or offkilter world rules it didn’t make up right—or something. I really have no idea what these are:
This movie was made in 2005 and people use cell phones, but just as often they use pay phones. Students read newspapers made out of newspaper. There’s no Internet. People smoke indoors, not just in bars but also classrooms. Jerome begs to get into an exclusive party and the host refuses – only to finally break down and hire him as the event’s bartender? Hoegaarden, an imported beer, has a twist-off cap. Cops take photos of evidence and then have to “wait for the blowups to come back.” There’s a Halloween party where everyone’s costume is half-assed and witless at an art college. And the college has mandatory gym class.
Last thing: there is a scene where Audrey walks into a cafe, pours a coffee, and leaves without paying. I don’t think it’s a Tak-All-U-Want, because I don’t think those exist. I’d say they just needed her to enter and see Jerome there (“I guess let’s have her want coffee”) and then they realized that having her pay would take too long (“Let’s just have her say her line and exit; it’s okay, no one will notice”). And by all appearances that is how this whole movie was made.
Gavel Bang! Rank It!
There’s a great part when Jerome is incompetently bartending and a guy walks up and says, “I’d like a Martell” and then stands there waiting with a skeptical look on his face that is GOLD. I laughed and laughed at this guy. Malkovich and Sophia Myles do nice stuff with what they’ve been handed, and there’s some dialog that sounds like actual art-people talking to each other. Almost every scene turns annoying before it ends but, magically, there’s much worse on my shelf. I rank this DVD #396, after AI: Artificial Intelligence (Spielberg’s 4-hour examination of the feelings of a Roomba) and above Lost In Space (at least Lacey Chabert is
super fuckable oops just cute not 18 yet). In other words, we’re down in the bottom 10%, but not all the way down. I award it seven Rotting on death row in deserved obscurities.