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The emperor and his clothes 

What makes a great artist? What makes Tom Cruise so expensive?

click to enlarge Dude, check out those poseurs! Max Minghella and Ethan Suplee in Art School Confidential - PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
The title itself is worthy of a quiet smirk: Art school? Confidential? Boasting a title of the sort usually reserved for celebrity sex exposés, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL is the follow-up collaboration between the creators of Ghost World: director Terry Zwigoff and comic book artist Daniel Clowes, based on one of his stories published years ago.

The film does little to dispel the popular notion that art school is a fraudulent enterprise, a racket dedicated to soaking the wealthy parents of trust-fund artist wannabes. Only the slenderest fraction of those who seek degrees at art institutes will ever support themselves as full-time artists. Indeed, in Art School Confidential, an embittered instructor (hammily played by John Malkovich) tells his students that one in a hundred of them will succeed.

However little respect art schools deserve, Clowes' script is a cheap-shot special, with the annihilation of one easy target after another at Cheney-esque range. The professors are all hacks, professional failures who have taken refuge in the academy, where they spend much of their time ogling their young charges. The students, meanwhile, are all no-talent rich kids who fall neatly into stereotypes--outlined at one point by a jaded observer (Joel David Moore, in the film's most appealingly louche performance). There are the suck-ups, the beatniks, the angry lesbians, the blowhards, the trustafarians and so on.

But the film's hero, earnest young Jerome, is not going to be one of the poseurs. No sir, he's going to be the exception, the solitary genius. Jerome, played by Max Minghella, is a wide-eyed naïf--and a virgin to boot--but he's a careful study. He quickly notices that success is largely a matter of hustle and flim-flammery--making connections (or as someone puts it, "cocksucking") and coming up with a signature gimmick will yield far greater rewards than spending long and lonely years honing one's craft. When a recent, successful alumnus of the school comes back to campus for a talk, the artist taunts the room, saying, "The only question you really want answered is how you can become me." While most of the students are horrified by his nasty candor, Jerome is making notes to himself.

Desperate to become the best in his class, Jerome employs his drafting skills to woo the class model, who is also the daughter of a semi-famous painter and thoroughly bored with the pretensions of the art scene. Meanwhile, Jerome develops relationships with other losers and rejects, including Jim Broadbent's Jimmy, a failed, alcoholic artist who works on macabre pop portraits of murder victims in his dank apartment. Jerome is infuriated to find himself bested by the primitive, unaffected efforts of another student, who also gains the upper hand in the pursuit of the class model.

There are some nasty jokes scattered through the film and a couple of entertaining performances, but Art School Confidential has little of the charm of Ghost World. (Instead, with its cheap production values and innocent sex obsessions, it feels like a Kevin Smith film.) It's almost as if the new film is the result of a decision to expand on the weakest and most smugly irritating part of Ghost World: the subplot concerning Enid's art class full of poseurs, led by Illeana Douglas as the pretentious teacher.

More disastrously, Art School Confidential lacks a strong protagonist. Minghella's bland performance is neither here nor there: Jerome isn't the nice guy he seems to be, but Minghella seems to lack the skills or the confidence to play the monster that his character really is. Ghost World, on the other hand, shows the power of strong, complex performances. Thora Birch's Enid, ably backed by Scarlett Johansson's Rebecca, possessed a strong point of view despite being a fumbler and a screw-up. She didn't know what she wanted, only that she didn't want to submit to that.

In the end, Ghost World was about Enid learning to stop rejecting life's possibilities, and to start embracing them instead. It was a moving and engrossing film, and one that possessed a believably off-kilter mise en scène. By disappointing contrast, Art School Confidential is self-satisfied and drearily cynical.

AWESOME; I FUCKIN' SHOT THAT! is the silly and unwieldy title of the new Beastie Boys concert film (which the Galaxy Cinema is showing with a dainty dot dot dot in place of the truncated copulative modifier). The title comes in the opening minutes of the film, after a wide-angle helicopter view of Manhattan. Inside Madison Square Garden, 50 lucky fans are getting instructions on how to videotape the concert with the cheap cameras they've been given. The premise of the concert, and the film, is that it's a gift to the fans: Beastie MCA (real name: Adam Yauch, cinematic handle: Nathanial Hornblower) would subsequently create a film from the footage shot by the fans. Years from now, they're told, they can look at the film and say, "Awesome...."

The film's clumsy title is worth belaboring because it says much about the film and the Beastie Boys. Although Mike D, Ad Rock and MCA are past 40 and quite rich these days, they're determined to stay close to their roots. From their punk origins in the 1980s, they've always been classic New York white-negro wiseacres, but from the evidence of the film, they've taken good care of themselves over the years. So it's disconcerting to see them take the stage in the '80s hip-hop uniform of track suits and cockeyed baseball caps with their names emblazoned in tacky lettering. In the Beasties' world, it's always 1986.

Although it's being released in theaters, in truth Awesome... is a fan's collectible, and from internal evidence it appears that the project was intended to be little more than that. The footage shot by the fans is mostly shown early and, while there are a few decent grabs, a full-length film from this footage would be unwatchable. The film's success rises and falls on just how much one likes the Beasties. Mix Master Mike often carries the momentum on his turntables, and Doug E. Fresh stops by for a cameo.

Just as their most recent album was titled To the 5 Boroughs, complete with an un-ironic image of the Twin Towers, the concert has the feel of a New York love-in. Like Howard Stern, Donald Trump and Al Sharpton, the Beasties are a permanent fixture of New York's endearingly obnoxious cultural landscape. And their fans love them for it.

Last Thursday night, I went on what, for a film critic, is an exotic adventure: I traveled to a multiplex and watched a new blockbuster film on opening night with a paying audience. While I hated MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (glorification of special ops skullduggery, ear-splitting explosions, boring characters), I was hoping to gain insight into the Tom Cruise phenomenon. Why does this man command upward of $25 million per picture? When it comes to Mission: Impossible, his compensation for the first two movies is said to total about $150 million. In fact, Cruise makes more per picture than the entire budgetof United 93, made for a reported $17 million.

Not coincidentally, United 93 is vastly superior to Mission: Impossible III. Paul Greengrass' star-free 9/11 movie is about ordinary people struggling with an extraordinary event. In Tom Cruise movies, everyone stands around and gapes at His Tomness, the omnipotent greatness which surely would have foiled the 9/11 plot had He been allowed into that movie. In United 93, the Bush-appropriated line "Let's roll" is tossed off with a mutter. In Mission: Impossible, Cruise can't scale a wall without pausing to muse, for lack of a better action movie quip, "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall," before resuming his task of smiting evil.

I'm not sure why the Tom Cruise brand still sells tickets, but from the screening I attended, there are hints of an implosion. By the film's denouement, the audience was snickering at his peppy reunion with co-star Michelle Monaghan. Just as people are challenging the once terrifying authority of Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush, it's now permissible to laugh at the world's biggest movie star. The Cruise may be heading for an iceberg.

  • What makes a great artist? What makes Tom Cruise so expensive?

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