ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL directed by Terry Zwigoff, written by Daniel Clowes, with Max Minghella, Sophia Myles, John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent and Steve Buscemi. 102 minutes. Opens Friday (May 5). For venues and times, see Movies, page 105. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Park City, Utah - There's always a disjuncture in whatever John Malkovich presents. The voice says passive but the teeth look sharp. The teeth look sharp, but he may never bother to bite. Even when he hisses in Dangerous Liaisons or snarls in Con Air, you get the sense that mayhem is something Malkovich could take or leave. It's the same with his role in Art School Confidential, a film he also co-produced. "I found it funny. I liked the characters," he says. " I could have been in it or not in it and I would have been just as interested."
Malkovich appears to be beaming his entire life from some distant satellite. At the Sundance festival promoting the new film, he swans around an empty restaurant in white pants and a matching sweater, taking calls from France. When he sits down with director Terry Zwigoff for the interview, he asks offhandedly, "Where are you from?" in that voice that says, "I already know the answer, and it's dreary." Nobody does detached like Malkovich.
But it may all be an act. By all accounts he's a hands-on producer.
"I don't always like acting in the things we produce," he says. "If I'm acting in something, I maybe don't want to say to a director, 'Have whoever try this take, just to see how it goes.' You can't do that."
"Steppenwolf Theatre is really Stalinist about that," he adds. "Actors never talk to other actors."
Malkovich, with Gary Sinise, is one of the early founders of Chicago's famed theatre company. It's hard to see Sinise as the Stalin.
In Art School Confidential, Malkovich re-teams with Zwigoff after producing his fiction debut, Ghost World. Zwigoff, who appears to be Malkovich's temperamental opposite, remembers sweating on that film.
"I was just trying to keep from getting fired and keep from embarrassing myself every day," he says.
The new film, he explains, is much more ambitious.
"It starts out very light and funny. Jerome arrives at the art school full of optimism, energy and good humour and soon gets all of those things stripped away from him one by one."
Like Ghost World, the Art School script is by cult comic artist Daniel Clowes. Clowes and Zwigoff share an interest in outsider characters and a skeptical worldview. Sometimes that gets called misanthropy.
"People don't have much tolerance for a critical nature," Zwigoff asserts. "I don't think people are critical enough."
Malkovich adds, "They always called Seymour in Ghost World misanthropic, and that's an incredible misreading."
But is there anything wrong with misanthropy?
"To my mind, no," Zwigoff shrugs.
And yet, because movies are meant to be populist, he takes mass taste into account.
"You try to balance making an artistically sound film with making a film that's not going to end your career," he admits. "You have to think about those things. I thought about that even making that Crumb documentary: how am I gonna make this film commercial; what's the poster going to look like?
"I staged this scene where Crumb cavorts with these leg-show models. It was a very dismal, downbeat, depressing affair, but I disguised that in the editing. We put in this upbeat music and it looks like he's having fun. But it was really just an excuse to put it in the trailer, put it on the poster: 'Oh, look, scantily clad girls. Maybe we'll go see this film.'
"You have to keep those concerns in mind if you want to keep working, you want to have a career, you want the film to make money. And yet I find it hard to second-guess what the audience is going to like, because you can never guess."
Heading off criticism from disillusioned fans, Zwigoff adds, "It wasn't a compromise, because I don't make compromises. At the time, I thought the scene would actually work."
The company Malkovich formed to produce films like Art School Confidential is called Mr. Mudd. The story behind the name is telling.
"Mr. Mudd was my driver on The Killing Fields," he says. "I was told he was a convicted murderer. He used to get his jollies by driving 130 miles an hour and then pointing the car at some Buddhists walking on the road or an old lady on a bicycle. I remember once we were driving and I asked him about the murder rap. He just said, 'Sometime Mr. Mudd kill, sometime Mr. Mudd not kill. '"
Malkovich leans back for the punchline. "I thought, god, that's so wise."
ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (Terry Zwigoff) Rating: NNN
After Bad Santa, Terry Zwigoff returns to Ghost World territory, with Max Minghella (Bee Season) playing an ambitious young student at a New York art school. He's set his sights on fame and genius, but the girl of his dreams (Sophia Myles) is more impressed with a jock's canvases. Oh, and there's a serial killer.
Zwigoff's natural misanthropy means the art-world satire is scathing and sometimes hilarious. John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi join the fun playing highbrow clichés. But the serial killer story is an awkward distraction.
The most useful thing about the film is that, in Minghella, Zwigoff may have discovered the male Scarlett Johansson - just as moist and vulnerable, and likely on the road to stardom.