May 9th, 2006


Fogey disses

I saw Art School Confidential last night. Although I snorted with amusement at a lot of the jokes, I was somewhat annoyed by the film. First of all, by its dyspeptic misanthropy, its "moronic cynicism". The film is posited on the idea that everybody in the world it portrays is a delusional asshole. And yet this isn't a film driven by character. It's a film driven by situational punchlines, by a neat and silly plot about a serial killer, and by an underlying philosophy of life which wallows in misanthropy. Whenever these needs conflict with the need to keep characters consistent or plausible, plot, punchline and people-hatred win and character consistency is discarded.

Fictions which diss a microworld can range from the inspired ("Nathan Barley") to the clunky (Altman's "Pret-a-Porter"), but their biggest weakness is -- paradox! -- the naivete of their cynicism. There's necessarily a certain datedness and ignorance to them. Even if the directors and writers of these "diss fictions" once went to art school, or were once in the fashion world, or were once hipsters (and even that isn't a given), they've since been "cured" of the delusions prevalent in these worlds, and are now able to satirize them from their new nest in the more populist film or television business. That means they're outsiders to the worlds they're satirizing, no longer able to enter the forcefield of fantasy which sustains these bubble worlds, unable to explain the particular appeal, the magic which makes people give their lives to something for the most part unremunerative. Their fingers are far from the pulse, so it's hardly surprising they so often portray the patient as dead.

And so, in "Art School Confidential" (ASC), we see the disillusionment without the "illusionment" -- the enchantment which lures people into these worlds in the first place. Max Minghella plays Jerome, a young man who "wants to be Picasso". And that sets the tone. Sure, Picasso's name is still on the lips of hedge fund managers, especially when a painting of his sells for $95 million. But Picasso means very little to the art students of 2006. We're just not living in that cultural era. We're also not living in the era in which art students "experiment" by recreating Yves Klein's actionist art from the 1960s, dipping their naked bodies in paint and hurling themselves against canvasses (a sight gag you can see in the trailer).

Wikipedia tells us that scriptwriter Daniel Clowes went to art school in the 1970s at Pratt in Brooklyn, which is presumably the model for the school we see in the film (but where's the process art? The conceptual art?). He "unsuccessfully attempted to find work in New York as an illustrator" after gaining his BFA, and then found success with comics, one of which (the one which provides the basis for this film) settled scores with the world of art which had, apparently, rejected him. Comics as a form are less "elitist", less mystificatory, less marginal, less enchanted, more narrative than art. As Clowes has demonstrated, the narrative and comedy elements in comics can lead you to Hollywood. There you can betray the high little world of art, using the power of the low big world of film. Hurrah! Scores settled, etc! Revenge is sweet!

And yet there's an oddly fusty atmosphere in this film. Zwigoff (and yes, I saw "Ghost World" too, and "Crumb") shares with David Lynch a certain 1950s fixation; with Lynch, even if you're ostensibly in the present, you're in a permanent 1940s, 1950s of the soul. Zwigoff formerly made a documentary about Robert Crumb, and seems to share Crumb's out-of-time fogey-ish style. I suspect that Clowes shares it too; his drawing style, for instance, is oddly retro. In this film we're far from the 21st century. The jokes at art's expense could almost come from Tony Hancock's 1960 film "The Rebel". One of the girls Jerome dates in ASC is a highly-wrought "beatnik girl". Not even a Goth, but a beatnik! In The Rebel (according to Screen Online's blurb) "there is a kind of lazy shorthand at work that conflates artists with Paris, existentialism, angry young men, beatniks and beat poets", but at least, in 1960, that "lazy shorthand" was only a couple of years out of date. Here it's four or five decades wide of the mark.

Now, sure, the film's title is a wink in the direction of "High School Confidential" (1958), so this may well be 80s-style retro pomo rather than simply being out of date. A salute to the art of the past, a repackaging of media cliches about media cliches. Yet it's odd how much of the style of the American subculture does have this retro pomo feel, this clinging to the mid-decades of the 20th century, and this implicit betrayal of the 21st century, contemporaneity or hipness. I picked up the same thing in "Lost in Translation", which satirizes the modernity of Toyko (and also hipsters), juxtaposing it against a peculiarly old-fashioned American "unlikely couple" who want to "break out of this place". You can also see it in the retro sets and atmosphere of "The Life Aquatic".

So why has the American alternative world become a sort of bile-fuelled fogey, hating on everything and everyone? Is it comforting to both reject the modern world, tarring everyone as an asshole, and evoke a long-vanished world of beatniks, berets and Picasso, a world in which you understood art well enough to laugh it out of the living room? Alas, the only thing 21st century about "Art School Confidential" may be that famous emotional tone colour picked up by American Environics: the "atomized, rage-filled outlook" summed up here by Jimmy, an alcoholic old failed artist and (possibly) murderer, and summed up in the film's recurring motto and leitmotif: "The entire human race should be wiped off the earth".