By Richard von Busack
Among "teachers who couldn't teach a dog to bark," the art students at Strathmore College try to connect with the muse. They're impeded in this noble quest by bitter courtiers, hacks and status seekers; meanwhile, a more committed misanthropist than any of these minor poseurs kills off the locals one by one.
Art School Confidential is out on DVD Oct. 10. Dan Clowes is the co-screenwriter with director Terry Zwigoff. Previously, Clowes and Zwigoff collaborated on Ghost World. Clowes's Eightball is at the very top of the pyramid of alternative comics, where it has been for nearly 20 years.
METRO: In Art School Confidential, two characters struck me the most deeply. The first was the abrasive and/or refreshingly honest artist Bushmiller, named probably in honor of Nancy's Ernie Bushmiller. In one scene he dresses down the audience of student artists, taunting them with his wealth, saying his money is the only thing that interests them. What do you think of his opinions?
CLOWES: I was saying to Terry that it's the kind of things I wish I could say in a Q and A interview. In some level I agree with what he says. At some other level I see how repellant the things he has to say are...how repulsive it is to earn that ability to speak like that and then to abuse it like he does. It is kind of refreshingly honest. The things he says are very much what he should say, because that really is what the audience was thinking: how much does he have in his bank account?
METRO: You mention Picasso a lot in the film. Picasso is the model of the Bushmiller style artist who can do what he wants, in this realm of failures, poseurs and sycophants.
CLOWES: Picasso is the only guy I could find who is that guy, this bon vivant who can parse his way through high society. I wanted to think of other examples, but most other artists have horrible dismal lives: nothing you'd want to emulate.
METRO: Even Matisse turned out to be an anxiety case. How about you—have you got to that blessed state, such as Picasso lived in, in which it doesn't matter what anyone says about your art?
CLOWES: Of course not, I'm a cartoonist.
METRO: The second character that struck me most is the bitter failure Jimmy, savagely played by Jim Broadbent. It seems to me that the original idea would have been to have him as a Slavic terror, given that he's drinking Slivovitz.
It's too easy for Americans to dismiss somebody from Central Europe: ah they're bitter, it's their history, if they grew up in Kansas they'd be more of a go-getter. But when Broadbent snarls it out in that broad American accent, you know he means every word.
CLOWES: I wanted him to be [the main character] Jerome gone bad—I really wanted Jimmy to be indigenous to this art world. My original thought was an old soap opera actor gone to seed. Have you ever seen a picture of the artist Walter Kean? [Kean is best known for his very popular and often reproduced paintings of begging urchins with gargantuan, spherical eyes; these paintings were an object of terror to many 1960s children, or at least this one.] Later in life, Kean became a dismal, bitter, alcoholic. He had that kind of look...he looked like Jerry Van Dyke, but with very bad gin blossoms. From far away he looked like he had it together, like TV figure, but up close he was upsetting. It was inspiring for Terry to have cast Jim Broadbent in the part of Jimmy.
Incidentally, the Slivovitz was a lower east side thing from art school. People I knew would go to these Ukrainian bars, where they served Slivovitz, the most indigestible liquor there is, so the real hard-core drinkers would gravitate toward it.
METRO: Do you watch a lot of movies these days?
CLOWES: Not so many I actually have a one and half year old, so that has cut down my movie-going in the last year or two.
METRO: Do you find watching cult movies a case of diminishing returns? It seems like there's no film so obscure that it doesn't have its own website—unlike the obscure snuff film that spurs the action in your Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.
CLOWES: When I was in high school...even movies that didn't seem that obscure, you'd wait two years to see, to stay up to 3 am to watch Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster, it had such a great build up, such a thrill. Now that you can get it in a matter of minutes, who wants to see Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster? Now it's s all about quality. If you can watch anything at any time, you want to watch something good.
But last night I stayed up to watch Good Times with Sonny and Cher—William Friedkin directed it, and George Sanders is in it, but it's as flat-looking as an Annette Funicello movie, with really weak Technicolor. I can't believe it's the same guy who did Cruising 12 years later.
METRO: Staying up to watch it must have been research. I know you like to draw characters like Zubrick, who have Sonny Bono haircut.
CLOWES: I love that, seeing it in real life, hair looking like it was clipped in a cereal bowl.
METRO: What was your own college experience like?
CLOWES: It was in NYC , in the late 1970s, in the pre-Giuliani era, the murder rate was at its height, and you wouldn't want to go near 42nd Street if you didn't want to be knifed. There was something about having to walk five blocks, carrying your stupid sculpture past guys who might shoot you, that made it some how more exciting. That experience of New York at the time is enmeshed in my memories of art school. It was really one of the best times in my life.I was from the South Side of Chicago, a bit different urban environment, but this was a whole different level. Plus there was the excitement of meeting guys who were into the same underground comics and weird movies that I was.
METRO: What do you think of the world of comics today?
CLOWES: It's an interesting time, certainly—probably the first time you interviewed me (c. 1988) I would have said there's 2 or 3 comics out there and nobody cares, and it's a niche field and no one knows about it. And now here we are, and it's commonplace for the New York Times or The New Yorker to write about comics as if it's an accepted thing for adults.
And I don't know if I like it any better now. I enjoyed it more when we were the despised, retarded stepchild of the other arts, leaving it all open to a lot of crazy stuff that I'm not sure can exist anymore
METRO: Well, it bothers the hell out of me that when The New Yorker writes about graphic novels, they say that Marjane Satrapi is the best graphic novelist around...
CLOWES: People have certainly not developed the critical language to write about comics. The people who write about graphic novels for the New York Times or the New Yorker are the art critic or the literary critic. They're bringing in an outsider's language and it's not the same. You'd never have a movie critic review novels using the language of cinema, and that's what they're doing. And as a practitioner of comics, I can read reviews and see the fumbling of words—
METRO: A graphic novel depends on a century of comics tradition...
CLOWES: And it's hard to bone up on that in three weeks, which is what a lot of people seem to be doing. It's funny, you see them tossing off names "of course, you know the work of N----..." and you think, "they didn't know who that guy was, three weeks ago!"
METRO: Can you recommend some younger cartoonists?
CLOWES: Kramers Ergot is a kind of artsy, next generation version of the anthology Raw. It's somewhat experimental, and I find it inspiring. But nobody there is of the level of Gary Panter or Charles Burns. There's a guy who is now 30, been around a few years: Adrian Tomine. I like this stuff. There's a lot of interesting stuff out there, but maybe it's a generational thing that means I'm the most drawn to artists I know already.
METRO: That's the way I feel, too—but oddly it's not that case with novelists and moviemakers. .
CLOWES: No, not at all. I just think it was an interesting time when all of us cartoonist came out of the woodwork, and we were all influenced by all this glut of weird stuff that was happening the late 70s...all these disparate styles by Charles Burns and Drew Friedman and the Hernandez Brothers, all with these fully formed visions.
METRO: But I hate to use the word 'generations' when talking about art...it's a hack's term, hacks like it, because it sounds so Biblical...making it look like artistic evolution is a pousse-café, level after level after level, with nothing touching, nothing crossing over.
CLOWES: Yeah. And if you use it, there are generations that include artists who are 28 and 47. You end up saying things like, "and here there's two years [inbetween generations]00 where nothing happened."
METRO: However, a lot of comics and graphic novels I read today are missing a certain funk. They're so chaste and wistful. Those 70s and 80s cartoonists were exposed to an incredible level of sex and violence because of their familiarity with the original team of undergrounders—Robert Crumb, Justin Green, Aline Kominsky, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, Spain and all the rest.
CLOWES: A lot of the people I'm thinking about are genteel in a certain way...they don't use that visceral imagery that hits you over the head. I find myself somewhat attracted to that [rough] stuff.
METRO: And another thing... The use of negative space isn't what it was, either. I'm glad they're reprinting Will Eisner's work, as an example the importance of countering that urge to crowd every panel with dialogue...
CLOWES: That is 100% true. When I'm trying to be inspired, I open up Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood..
METRO: What was the collaboration with Terry Zwigoff like, this time around?
CLOWES: It's funny, I wrote the script by myself, but Terry was such a presence in my mind when I was writing it. With the Ghost World script, there were all these little things I put in that I really liked. And he'd go, "Ah I don't like this." SLASH! It's gone!
Or I'd talk him into filming it: "You got to film this, it'll be great!" and he'd film it and go "Eh, Never liked it." And it was gone!
I thought this time, my goal is to write it to crack up Terry Zwigoff, to get him emotionally engaged, and I knew him well enough to do it. But it was a different experience this time...a collaboration without it being a collaboration.
METRO: Art School Confidential's script that's drastically different from your original cartoon in Eightball—a series of amusing snapshots, really...
CLOWES: "The Lighter Side...of Art School!"
METRO: Ah, it was funnier than Dave Berg
CLOWES: I like Dave Berg...
METRO: (snickering) Did you see that parody of Mad magazine in the National Lampoon...."The Lighter Side of Dave Berg..."
(Both of us bust up laughing.)
CLOWES: That was one of the meanest things I've ever read...that's the only time I ever felt sorry for someone that the Lampoon went after.
"Hey, are you Dave Berg? You're the guy that does those cartoons in Mad magazine. Why are you such an asshole?"
METRO: "Ya wishy-washy liberal creep!"
CLOWES: I hope your audience in Metro will understand.
METRO: Oh, I'm sure. I don't worry about it anymore. You know, when I was a kid, I looked stuff up. I trust they'll do the same.
CLOWES: In Art School Confidential, we had in mind to do things that were like a real film noir. Film Noir really isn't just the kind of thing of a tough guy beating people up and cars chasing each other, like Sin City. Really, film noir is about a shlubby, unimpressive guy thrown into these horrible circumstances and ending up in a morally compromised situation.
METRO: Like Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street.
CLOWES: Right, like Scarlet Street. It's a bleaker, grimmer world.
Of course, I was somewhat drawn to making a exploitation film, and it's certainly inspired by High School Confidential, a similar plot. I really wanted to have Jerry Lee Lewis in the back of a flatbed truck at the beginning of Art School Confidential. If you think about it, John Malkovich is kind of the Jackie Coogan character.
METRO: Did you think any of the teachers at Strathmore had a valid method of teaching art?
CLOWES: Certainly not valid, but I certainly have experienced sitting in on a few art school classes where I was ostensibly teaching...even after one or two days, I got totally burned out by the experience having to judge this unformed art. It's really a draining experience, and it's really hard to look at each thing and guess, "where could this possibly go?" And then you feel you have too much control over some artist's vision. You don't want to tell them, 'get rid of all this and try to just focus on this one little thing'...because it's not a career, they should be doing what they want. It's hard to teach somebody this lesson.
So I can feel how people could become like the teacher John Malkovich plays, where they can't even talk about art, they're just waiting for something totally different to come along.
METRO: I remember that Justin Green comic about having to drop out from teaching art after he started having nightmares about snakes: "A fine visual cocktail, young man!" ('I hope I don't get any of this shitty painting on my sports coat.')
I noticed that Anjelica Huston's 'Darkness at Noon'* teacher was the most sympathetic. That's the way it was in my college. The art history survey guy was very avuncular and English...
CLOWES: They're sort of above it all.
METRO: At the drawing classes, he wouldn't even lose his cool, critiquing the people who had pooped something out at 2am: "Isn't this a dainty dish!"
CLOWES: Yeah, they can immerse themselves. They can tell themselves, "I'm living in 1580!" It's tempting sometimes to imagine living like that. Terry does that with music.
METRO: How long had Art School Confidential been finished before it was released?
CLOWES: It's been...it took forever, Terry is the slowest editor. Ghost World took him the longest time, and then Bad Santa was the same thing...about 8 months.
METRO: He said getting the music was a real trial. I liked the way the classical worked as a counterpoint to the viciousness...
CLOWES: I said modern music would be the only thing that would be appropriate, but when Terry to that stage he said 'I can't do it, I don't respond to any of this music, and I've got to be able to respond to it."
METRO: One last question about your latest work. Living in a city as you do, why drawn to comics about small towns like Ice Haven?
CLOWES: I think it has to do with the logistics of the comics panel. In a certain way, it's too hard to draw cities in comics, too labor intensive to get across the idea of cars and buildings and people, to really capture the sense of the crowded and populated they are. It overwhelms whatever story you're doing. It's much cleaner and simpler to have these microcosmic towns, with one office building and one university. Everything becomes more symbolic in a way. That being said, I'm actually working on something that I'm trying to set in Los Angeles. It's the first time ever that I had a real location.
METRO: What's that about?
CLOWES: It's in its infancy, but it's about the girl from Ice Haven. By the end of the story, she gets sort of summoned to Hollywood. It's the adventures of a naive screenwriter.
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