Sequart.com as a site likes to look at comics as they impact other art forms, especially film. While the various superhero movies receive plenty of notice here, I thought I’d review a film that comes from the indy comics end of things: Art School Confidential.
The film was written by EIGHTBALL creator Daniel Clowes and directed by Terry Zwigoff. While most will know Zwigoff from directing Bad Santa, he’s been closely associated with the world of comics for quite some time. He directed the astonishing documentary Crumb, which was about the legendary underground cartoonist R.Crumb and his family. Zwigoff is a long-time friend of Crumb but didn’t mind making a documentary that wasn’t always flattering. More than mere biography, it brings up issues related to art and madness, especially when it focuses on Robert’s brothers Charles and Maxon. Zwigoff also directed and cowrote the screenplay for Ghost World, an adaptation of Clowes’ excellent comic that had a number of Zwigoff-esque touches. Clowes’ newest film seems to me to be almost all-Clowes in its content, filled with anger and the sort of grotesqueries that populate the pages of EIGHTBALL.
Art School Confidential takes as its reference point a short comic that Clowes wrote about his own experiences in art school. The story is brief, hilarious and vicious. Like most of Clowes’ work, he targets himself for a good portion of the vitriol. That was obvious in his earlier work in stories like “Why I Hate Christians,” “On Sports,” etc. As he matured, his protagonists became more complicated even as they remained his stand-ins. Enid in GHOST WORLD is basically a teenaged and female version of Clowes (Enid Coleslaw is an anagram of Daniel Clowes). Dan Pussey is basically an alternate world version of Clowes as superhero comic hack. A number of the characters in ICE HAVEN could also be considered Clowes stand-ins, but most especially Vida.
An interesting side-effect of Clowes’ success as a screenwriter and comics artist is his increasing discomfort with that success. That’s especially true with his work in film. Vida puts out a zine that no one buys and then suddenly gets hired by a Hollywood talent scout who reads it by accident; Vida declares that she’s off to become “the biggest whore ever!” That could well describe Clowes’ own ascension to success in Hollywood. It’s no accident that Clowes’ film experiences have had a profound effect on his comics. David Boring was deliberately staged in the language and trappings of film. He created that comic while he was getting into the process of making Ghost World. ICE HAVEN, the follow-up to David Boring, was deliberately anti-cinematic, instead relishing every comics technique and trope he could utilize. He particularly focused on classic comic strip motifs, going back to comics wellsprings as a reaction to making films. “The Death-Ray,” which came out while in the process of filming Art School Confidential, uses super-hero imagery and a number of similar only-in-comics techniques. The comic certainly shares a similar extremely bleak and cynical viewpoint. There was clearly something about working in film that made Clowes want to make comics that could only work as comics, but how would this affect his film work?
The answer can be found in Art School Confidential. While on the surface a broad and slapsticky assault on his art-school past, the film is also a metacritique on his filmmaking present. It also follows Clowes’ recent tendency in his comics to use protagonists that are extremely difficult for an audience to identify with or like. The result is a film that is easy to admire but one that subverts audience enjoyment.
The film follows young Jerome, who had long fantasized about becoming a famous artist, mostly as a way to get revenge on those who made fun of him and of course to get girls. As the film’s protagonist, the audience is expected to identify with his struggle and have sympathy for his plight. However, it becomes clear during the film that Jerome is shallow, selfish and what little idealism he had was quickly stripped away in pursuit of his perfect woman and fame. If this was a tragedy, Jerome would be punished for his hubris. In this film, the more revolting his actions become, the more he’s rewarded by circumstance.
Beyond that first bit of subversion, Clowes attacks several other familiar film stocks-in-trade. The filmmaker character is only the most obvious. At first a hyper-intense asshole who wants to make a tedious serial-killer film based on the exploits of a real-life strangler terrorizing the neighborhood, he later turns this into an “art” film that’s even more unwatchable. Clowes is attacking pretension without substance as much as he is attacking the banality of Hollywood thrillers. Going a bit deeper, the way the film resolves is a more subtle assault. By introducing a cliched strangler plotline into his art school film, and then tacking on a love story where all of the involved parties are shallow, superficial and altogether unpleasant, Clowes goes over the top with his attacks on art as it relates to commerce.
At times the targets he sets up and knocks down seem a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. They are so buffoonish and absurd in his depiction, without a shred of humanity or any redeeming value, that this lack of ambiguity makes the film one long polemic. Fortunately, the targets are familiar enough that even his absurdly crafted satire rings true even as it goes for overkill. Clowes is careful to stock the first half of the film with plenty of laughs before taking it to some darker places. Jerome winds up being guilty of one crime that he hopes to benefit from, but his guilt is not discovered and he does not profit. He then winds up being accused and imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, but proceeds to profit handsomely. Which scenario is worse is left to the audience, but it’s clear that Clowes hates deception above all else.
The question is, did Clowes have trouble adapting his original story to film? Did earlier versions simply not hold up, and did he try in vain to come up with some kind of structure for his critiques? Did he find himself unable to come up with any ideas that didn’t immediately seem to be cliched, and did he respond by instead going to the most cliched, hackneyed plotlines possible? In a sense, his film is both an attack on filmmaking and his own inability to solve the problems that filmmaking brings. It’s the same manner in which Jerome is both a tool for Clowes to attack the artificiality of the art world and to expose his own culpability in same. It’s a bitter brew, one that Clowes tries to sweeten with some nasty laughs and with ironic distance. To his credit, Clowes only winks ironically just a bit, because he tries to stay true to his story while mocking it all the while. It reminds me a lot of the film Adaptation, a metafilm that mocks its own limitations while also excoriating hackwork, and then relies on cliches to resolve its plot. While that kind of ironic distance, self-loathing and metacommentary isn’t for everyone, I certainly found it immensely rewarding. Just like his “Death-Ray” uses the familiarity of the superhero comic genre to get across his points on authenticity, so does Art School Confidential rely on an audience’s expectations of film. While it’s no surprise that audiences were pretty much universally repulsed by the end product, the result still bears scrutiny and contemplation.