Art School Confidential (2006)


Today’s cinema adventure: Art School Confidential, the 2006 film by Terry Zwigoff based on Daniel Clowes’ underground comic of the same name.  The second collaboration between Zwigoff and Clowes, it follows the efforts of an art college freshman to win the love of his dream girl by becoming a successful artist.  It shares many of the themes of their first joint effort, Ghost World, as well as its bleak world view and cynical take on humanity, and features an impressive array of talent in supporting roles.

The plot follows Jerome, a young man whose interest in art has more to do with his libido than his desire for self-expression.  Believing that success in the art world will allow him a limitless amount of female companionship; he enrolls as an art major in an urban college, where he has high hopes that his talent will quickly be acknowledged.  Instead, he finds himself just one of many frustrated hopefuls in a depressingly grim environment where the only topic more discussed than the uselessness of an art degree is the string of unsolved murders taking place near the campus.  Surrounded by peers who are self-absorbed, pretentious boors, and professors who are self-important, disaffected failures, more interested in their own stalled art careers than in nurturing the abilities of the students under their charge, he gradually realizes that success is more about playing the game than about talent.  To make matters worse, he is completely turned off by the dysfunctional girls in his dating pool, and he begins to despair that his fantasies of being a playboy artist will be crushed by the cold reality of adult life.  Things begin to look up when he meets a beautiful model who shows an interest in him, but after she is swayed by a handsome fellow student- whose work has gained more recognition than his own- his desperation drives him to concoct a deceitful plan which will put him on the fast track to success and win back the attention of his newfound dream girl.

On the surface, Art School Confidential feels like one of those eighties-era coming-of-age comedies directed by John Hughes, in which a geeky teen loser learns that being yourself is more important than being popular and ends up winning the boy or girl of their dreams by the final scene.  That description is not far off, but in this screenplay, penned by Clowes himself to ensure faithfulness to his own misanthropic vision, the formula is turned on its ear.  Jerome doesn’t want to be accepted as he is, he wants to be worshipped; and far from finding empowerment and self-actualization, he learns that being himself brings only further isolation and obscurity, and that if he wants his dreams to come true he will have to find a way to stoop lower than everyone else.  His story is shot through with the kind of social satire that hits uncomfortably close to home, threatening to undermine any preconceived ideas we might have about the underlying goodness of humanity; if there was ever any there, Clowes makes it clear that it has been thoroughly snuffed out by the degraded, ego-driven culture he shows us.  Like our protagonist, we look around desperately for kindred spirits, but the cast of characters offers us little solace; Jerome’s fellow students are a collection of affected misfits and pompous twits, and the adults are more or less an older- and more disillusioned- generation of the same breed.  Virtually every person in the film is motivated by their vanity, and everyone else around them is merely an object to be used in their quest for self-fulfillment.  This is true even of those few characters that seem sympathetic- including Jerome, who turns out to be more of an anti-hero than we surmise.  With such a disheartening perspective on the denizens of the art world- and, by extension, the rest of the human race- it’s hard to find any of the comedy very funny, at least in a laugh-out-loud way.  The film’s humor is dark, dry, and derisive; it is also arch and vaguely judgmental, casting a reproving eye on the professional and personal pursuits of all its characters and concluding that the bulk of human endeavor amounts to a desperate cry for attention.

For his part, director Zwigoff makes every effort to keep things light, at least visually.  He capitalizes on the movie’s teen-angst heritage with nods to the genre’s cliches, such as “getting-it-done” montages and character-based visual gags, and directs his actors with a clear focus on presenting its familiar types.  He obviously relishes the exploration of his quirky characters’ personalities, but he emphasizes the details of the plot enough to keep it moving effectively.  It’s also obvious that he shares Clowes’ ironic sensibilities, and he is careful not to undermine Art School Confidential by softening its snarky edge with sentimentality- although, with the help of his A-list cast of adult actors, he does manage to imply a more mature counter-perspective that includes at least a little mitigation of the seemingly soulless and shallow priorities exhibited by the inhabitants of his film’s inhospitably selfish universe.

For their part, the actors do their best to keep things real, without relying solely on the surface qualities of their stereotypical characters; overall, the cast manages to infuse a level of humanizing depth to the proceedings that keeps the movie from being an unrelentingly pessimistic existential polemic.  Despite their best efforts at honest playing- or perhaps, in many cases, because of it- there are few likable characters in Art School Confidential; the single most pleasant personality is exhibited by Joel Moore, as Jerome’s friend Bardo, whose portrayal of a proudly self-acknowledged failure is refreshingly free of barely-concealed self-promotional subtext- appropriately making this gregarious loser a comfortable island in a sea of  chilly attitudes.  Max Minghella is deceptively appealing as Jerome, until his quest for recognition turns him into a self-pitying cry-baby; and Sophia Myles, likewise, fools us into liking his would-be soulmate, Audrey. The good stuff, however, comes from the heavy-hitting support team of accomplished grown-ups; John Malkovich, Anjelica Huston, Jim Broadbent, and Steve Buscemi all bring their skills to the table as they portray various representatives of the older-but-not-necessarily-wiser set, and the film leaps several notches up in quality when they are on the screen- which, sadly, is never for very long.

Art School Confidential is meant, of course, to be a comedic exposé of the pretentious, stagnated world of academic art, a subject ripe for vigorous satire.  The problem is that the humor seems to come from a rather mean-spirited place; Clowes and Zwigoff take a decidedly uncharitable view of almost every affectation and foible displayed by their characters, and at times their approach feels more like bullying ridicule than good-natured ribbing.  Their critical stance is certainly a valid one, but one can’t help feeling that the harsh perspective is a little too one-sided; after all, it’s easy to point fingers at the hypocrisy and artificiality we see around us, but it is perhaps more interesting to explore what lies underneath that surface.  Coming of age involves an awakening, a realization that the world is full of phonies and disappointments; but it also involves advancing past this stage to a more mature viewpoint, one with which we can discern the more subtle forces at work around us.  Art School Confidential strikes an attitude of smug contempt for its subject which smacks of sophomoric thinking, a pose which is ultimately no different than any of those assumed by the various characters it mercilessly skewers throughout.  It misses its mark not because of the darkness of its tone or its candid observations about the weakness of mankind- many fine films share these qualities, such as the work of director Todd Solondz, whose movies Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse are about as pessimistic as you can get but still engage and stimulate us with their depth and their humanity.  Rather, it fails because it lacks a certain maturity; instead of piercing insight, it offers blunt criticism, and in the end it leaves us knowing little and caring less about the inner workings of the world it portrays.  It’s a shame, because Art School Confidential has a lot of potential- both Zwigoff and Clowes are exceptionally talented, and one can’t help but feel that somehow, something was lost in the translation from page to screen.  There are times when the movie almost feels like it’s going to take off, and comedic moments that feel like they are about to make us laugh; but these are short-lived, and by the time we reach its somewhat predictable and not-very-satisfying climax, we have long since lost interest.  Fans of Clowes’ ironic-outsider flavor may find the movie easier to take than the rest of us, but those interested in discovering his work might be better-advised to go to the source rather than starting with this weak adaptation.  Still, the pairing of the author/artist and his filmmaking partner in crime seems a match made in heaven, and together they have managed to craft a very good film – but it’s called Ghost World, and the disappointment of Art School Confidential is probably all the more  bitter because they proved once before that they could get it right.




Parting Glances (1986)

Today’s cinema adventure: Parting Glances, the 1986 first (and only) feature by writer/director Bill Sherwood, hailed as a landmark in the history of gay cinema and also notable for featuring actor Steve Buscemi in his first major film role.  Made on a shoestring budget in 1984 and finally released two years later, it was chosen as the first movie to be restored by the Outfest Legacy Project in 2007, and it still stands today as one of the most refreshingly authentic representations of gay life yet to be seen on the American screen.

Shot entirely on location in New York, the film follows a young upwardly mobile couple, Michael and Robert, through the events of a 24-hour period; Robert is preparing to leave for a two-year work assignment in Africa, while Michael, facing the prospect of being left alone, ponders the uncertainty of their future together- as well as the inevitable demise of his AIDS-infected ex-boyfriend, Nick, with whom he still shares a deep bond.  As the couple attend a dinner party with Robert’s boss and then a farewell gathering with their friends, the movie gives us a cross-sectional slice-of-gay-life view of mid-eighties New York, using the various interactions and activities of its characters to explore not only the relationships at its center, but also the concerns and issues that affect them as a community and as individuals.

One of the primary reasons for the importance of Parting Glances, of course, is the window it provides into the days when the AIDS epidemic was at its height; it was a time when being diagnosed with the disease was, in essence, a death sentence, and the gay community was being ravaged.  This humble little film was one of the first to deal with this issue, and certainly the first to treat it with candor rather than with alarmist sensationalism.  Though only one of the characters is afflicted by the virus, it is clear through the conversations and situations we are privy to throughout that it’s a situation that deeply affects them all; it hovers around the edges of their lives like the ominous Don Giovanni-inspired specter that appears to Nick in a few key scenes, a factor in everything they do, say, or plan.  Despite its omnipresence, however, the subject of AIDS does not receive the kind of dour and mournful treatment one might expect, particularly from a film made in the midst of its darkest hold on the hearts and minds of the gay community; nor is it handled with the precious, maudlin sentimentality of so many of the movies that came after.  On the contrary, though its weight and seriousness are never in question, Parting Glances takes a disarmingly light-hearted approach to the disease: Nick does not play the morose and tragic victim; his ultimate decline and fall are a given, but, for now at least, he is still relatively healthy, and his brash,  vibrant personality is the heart of the movie.  He faces his fate with staunch acceptance, yes, but also with a hearty helping of gallows humor and nothing-to-lose directness.  The dire eventuality of his situation is implicit, and this film feels no need to hammer the audience with it; its focus, rather, is on the present moment, and the opportunity it affords for taking stock, seizing the day, and perhaps most importantly, tending the needs of the heart.

Though AIDS looms heavily over Parting Glances, it is by no means the only subject with which the film concerns itself.  The central storyline, after all, deals with the relationship of Michael and Robert, and its future- or its lack of one- is not contingent on a life-threatening disease; rather, it hinges on their own respective ambivalence, their fear of commitment, and their ability to be emotionally available to each other.  In short, the obstacles in their joint path, though they may be somewhat obscured or confused by the comparatively minor attendant factors of same-sex unions, are the same ones faced by any couple, gay or straight; the film does an admirable job of underlining this universality, placing the pair in juxtaposition with other couples, straight and not-so-straight, throughout its proceedings, and while it makes no judgments regarding the validity or moral superiority of any of these relationships, the dynamic between our two protagonists seems to stack up at least as favorably, more or less, as any of the others.  Michael’s relationship with Nick is also a key factor here- their easy chemistry and bantering rapport contrast sharply with the often strident interactions of Michael and Robert, opening up questions about compatibility and the line between romance and friendship- particularly among same-sex partners.  There are plenty of non-romantic relationships on display here, too: Michael and several other characters connect closely with Joan, the “hag” who hosts the going-away party and serves as a sort of combination best gal-pal and den mother; there’s also Robert’s boss and his wife, who bond with Robert and Michael, respectively; Robert’s former high school girlfriend, now married but still a confidante; and a number of other friends and acquaintances who interact with the couple and each other throughout the course of the film.  All of these exchanges offer insight into the social tapestry of this insular community, and key us into the pulse of this specific time and place, as well as revealing the repetition of timeless patterns and themes within the sphere of human connectivity, gay, straight, or anywhere in between.

It might seem like there’s a lot going on in Parting Glances, and of course, there is; but despite its busy agenda, it never feels as if it were packed too full, nor does any of it seem forced.  Thanks to Sherwood’s witty, flowing screenplay, all the major issues and themes work their way unobtrusively into the dialogue, weaving through the conversations naturalistically and convincingly instead of being introduced as didactic rhetoric; these are real people discussing their lives, not mouthpieces presenting a case, and as a result, the movie feels like a stimulating party instead of a public debate.  This organic quality is enhanced all the more by Sherwood’s engaging cast, who are clearly having a wonderful time as they present us with a wide variety of familiar “types” (as opposed to stereotypes) within the gay and gay-friendly community.  As Michael and Robert, respectively, are Richard Ganoung and John Bolger; both are attractive and likable, but they are not a cookie-cutter couple- each has their own distinctive persona, and they both clash with and complement each other in a highly realistic and believable manner.  Kathy Kinney plays Joan, providing a grounded, female presence with a character that rises above potential cliché; she is both insightful and incorrigible, and she conveys- subtly, and without self-pity- the resignation of a life possibly lived vicariously through her friends.  Also memorable is Adam Nathan, as a self-assured young “twinkie” who sets his sights on Michael; ready to claim the world from an elder generation that is not willing, quite yet, to give it up to him, he succeeds in being endearing instead of insufferable, and his scene with Nick on the stairs outside the party is a highlight of the film.  The standout performance, though, comes from Buscemi, who does a remarkable job of playing Nick; the character is doomed but delightful, a combination which could easily seem glib and artificial in the hands of a lesser actor, but he pulls it off superbly, making it clear that his sardonic wit and his edgy personality are part and parcel of who he is- not an affectation in response to his status as a member of the walking dead- and that underneath them there is a large and generous heart.  His desire to leave behind a legacy for his friends goes beyond the material items in his last will, semi-substantial though they may be (he is, it seems, a minor rock-and-roll star); he actively means to make a difference in their lives, and Buscemi’s work allows us to see the genuine love at the source of these efforts.  Lest we think his Nick is too good to be true, though, he still manages to get across, in little ways, here and there, that he is not altogether okay with what is happening to him, despite his brave face; but this never gets in the way of the positive energy he exudes throughout.  It’s a performance that should have made Buscemi a star, much sooner, and would have, no doubt- if the movie had been more widely seen.

There are numerous other enjoyable qualities here, not the least of which is the way the film captures the look and feel of mid-eighties New York; this is no surprise, of course, considering that is when and where it was filmed, but some credit is still deserved by the production designer (John Loggia), the art directors (Daniel Haughey and Mark Sweeney), and the set decorator (Anne Mitchell) for deciding what should go into the series of well-appointed homes and apartments that provide the setting, as well as to cinematographer Jacek Laskus for deciding how to film it, with special kudos to all involved for making it look so polished despite the bargain-basement budget.  Also contributing to its evocation of time and place are the soundtrack choices, a combination of songs by Bronski Beat and original, very posh-sounding piano music by Mike Nolan, with some operatic selections thrown in, by way of Nick’s LP player, for good measure.

It seems somehow wrong to say that a movie made at the height of the AIDS crisis, featuring AIDS as a major subject and set among the gay community, is entertaining and fun; but that’s exactly what Parting Glances is.  Though it is unquestionably dramatic in its overall scope and intention, it makes sure even the heaviest matter is carried along by an effervescent current, and precisely because it doesn’t continually remind us of how poignant and moving it should be, it ends up being extremely poignant and extremely moving- particularly, I might add, for those who have lost friends like Nick in the long battle with AIDS.  As its title suggests, this is a movie about saying goodbye, not just to the dead, but to the living as well- the continuation of Michael and Robert’s relationship is by no means a sure thing at the end, after all; but bittersweet as it may be, it is also a film about moving forward.  The script clips along, the actors and the camera are constantly in motion, and the entire flow carries us through to the end, leaving us with a tangible momentum.  People come and go, things change, but the world keeps moving, and maybe part of what Parting Glances suggests is that our only real way of leaving something of ourselves in the mix is to make sure our lives touch those of the people who surround us.  In this day and age, it’s possible to watch Parting Glances and entertain the hope that Nick will be one of those lucky survivors who managed to hang on to life until medical science caught up enough with the disease to at least stave off death, and that he, like so many millions today, could still be out there thriving as an HIV-positive man.  If so, he would be luckier than the film’s creator, who passed away from the disease in 1990, without making another film and without surviving to see the way this one was embraced and revered by his own community, as well as by the larger cinematic world.  His movie stays with us, however, and through it, he continues to touch lives today.  So perhaps, truly, he was a very lucky man indeed.