Heroes of the Hall Gallery
Art School ConfidentialDVD, 102 mins. BBFC certificate 15
Sony Pictures, £19.99
Reviewed by Roger Sabin
‘Art school is to me what Vietnam is to Oliver Stone – I can never run out of stories about the place.’ So says Dan Clowes, screenwriter of this sporadically hilarious comedy-drama, in an interview included on the extras of the DVD version. And on DVD is where you will find it, having been lambasted in the United States and denied a theatrical release in Britain. Which is a pity, because, just as Vietnam veterans want their story told, so art school veterans (as surely many – most? – Eye readers are) will find much here to salve their traumatised egos.
The story involves a freshman student (Max Minghella) who dreams of being the greatest artist in the world, and his doomed attempts to convince his tutor (John Malkovich) of his talent. Along the way, he falls for a beautiful life model (Sophia Myles), meets an art wheeler-dealer (Steve Buscemi) and gets locked up for some murders he did not commit. Interest in his artwork perks up once he is safely in the can.
It’s pretty thin stuff as a narrative, but as a satire on the pretensions and absurdities of art school, the incidental details are spot-on. At one point, Malkovich – on brilliant cynical form – announces to the class that the best of their work will be selected for an exhibition in the Hall Gallery. They’re flattered at first, until one of them puts up his hand and asks: ‘Do you mean the hall next to the toilet?’
There are many more scenes based on observational humour for the cognoscenti, and centring on the all-too recognisable characters: Malkovich’s Prof Sandiford is a burn-out who believes his paintings of triangles are profound (‘I’ve been doing them for 25 years,’ he says proudly; ‘I was one of the first’), while the students are grotesques who think that sending huge voltages through their nipples, or painting themselves green and flinging themselves at a canvas, will somehow count as art.
It is a bleak vision, and the film’s conclusion seems to be that art school is nothing but a scam, designed to make middle-class misfits feel good about themselves. When a student critiques another’s infantile painting with the words ‘It has the singularity of outsider art, though the conscious rejection of spatial dynamics could only come with intimacy with the conventions of picture-making,’ Sandiford can only stand back and nod approvingly. Yes, folks, if you have any sympathy with David Thompson’s ‘Artspeak’ polemic (Agenda, Eye no. 62 vol. 16), then this is the movie for you.
But, art bollocks aside, most of the film’s problems stem from the attempt to transform a short comic strip – Clowes’ own story of the same name, from his indie hit Eightball – into a 102-minute feature. It was never going to work: the original was a short blast of hate, inspired by the writer’s experiences at art school, and suited the comics form perfectly.
Clowes cannot take all the blame. The director is Terry Zwigoff, of Crumb (1994) and Bad Santa (2003) fame, and the two men first collaborated on the wonderful Ghost World in 2001, for which they were nominated for a screenplay Oscar. But that was originally a graphic novel (again by Clowes), not just a strip, and thus had more light and shade, more ideas.
So how should we grade Art School Confidential? It should be ‘B minus’ for being an overstretched mess. But, for the purposes of this review, and in the gleefully cynical spirit of the movie, we should give it an ‘A’, on the same basis as Professor Sandiford awards all his students ‘A's – so that everybody goes home happy.