On Sad Cramped Spaces in Terry Zwigoff


Watching Art School Confidential last night, I was struck by how inert and generic the scenes at the art school — in the classrooms, the halls, the dorms, the quad — were. I started to fear it was going to be a bad film.


But then the camera entered the cramped apartment of the bitter, reclusive older artist who becomes a mentor to the naive protagonist, schooling in the infinite shitiness of the art world, and the whole thing came alive. The dingy, stinky, entropic apartment of this old man was so clearly Zwigoff’s home turf — like the basements in Crumb, like Billy Bob Thornton’s car in Bad Santa — that it seemed a shame to see him working anywhere else. I want to see Zwigoff do claustrophobic dysfunction, not sassy teen drama.



I think all artists have their things and their places — true style is, as much as anything, a default … a process of arriving at the only thing you can do well, rather than choosing what you want to do from many viable options.


I love artists like this.


The question is: how big is the region of one’s true style? Is there anything Zwigoff could do to breathe the same life into the college scenes as he did into the apartment? Or should he simply stick to the apartment? Do we all have apartments like this that we’d be better off sticking to, or should we always be trying to outdo ourselves?


‘My Ear is a Doodle’: A Brief Note on Growing Up

When I was a senior in high school, my two best friends and I saw ourselves as a sort of absurdist trio. Everything was darkly, sometimes painfully funny to us — not that life was a joke in the classic slacker sense, but that everything was infused with a lurid, menacing kind of humor — almost physically, like a sort of oil that was oozing out of the trees and sidewalks and all the people around us — that we couldn’t help but succumb to.


We were taking a lot of our high school courses that year at the local college — there was a deal with the town that let us do this. During this time we got really into Logic, though I don’t think any of us bought into the idea that life could ever be that systematic. We just thought it was cool, maybe all the more so because of its absurdly unfulfilled promise of imposing order on the chaos of language and thought.


One day, our professor announced that a famous Australian logician named Graham Priest was coming to the college to give a one-time-only lecture, which he swore we’d be insane to miss.


So the three of us went. We got stoned, as we tended to, and went to the local chicken wings place, where we almost fought with the airhead waitress (our best attempt at flirting in those days), and then we showed up, late and already giggling, at the dingy seminar room where Graham Priest’s lecture was underway.


Five or six college students sat dutifully taking notes while he scrawled on the whiteboard with his back to the room, making minute scribbles and mumbling to himself in his Australian accent. Alien-looking notation spidered around the board, and he seemed completely invested in what he was writing, so much so that he had no concern for whether it made sense to any of us.


The other students didn’t seem concerned either: they wrote down everything he said with a kind of automatic thoroughness that made it seem like they weren’t even listening.


Inevitably, the three of us began to laugh. At first, it was just a modest stoned giggle at the absurdity of this supposedly Great Man, reduced to gibberish and too far gone to notice. But soon we couldn’t control it. We were guffawing so loudly we had to run out of the room, knocking over desks and tripping over backpacks as we went.


The Great Man didn’t even turn from the board.


When we got outside, we were heaving and sweating, tears in our eyes. “All I could think,” one of us said, when he could breathe again, “was of asking him to demonstrate the validity of the proposition ‘my ear is a doodle,’ and watching him get right down to it without batting an eye.”


We convulsed in laughter again, then started mocking him: “Well, if we let the letter E stand for ear, and D for doodle, we see right off that the connective unifying lemma would have to be …”


The self-seriousness of the Great Man was so absurd it hurt our sides and throats to consider it.



Now that I’m 29 and not 18, I see him in a different light. At the time, I remember thinking of his pathetic self-seriousness as a personal choice — I thought, ‘here’s a man who, for reasons of his own, has chosen to be absurd and pathetic. Or, at least, has failed to choose not to be.’


I, on the other hand, was certain that I’d rocket far beyond this fate, into the realm of glory I felt absolutely bound for.


But as I enter the world of adults more and more, I can appreciate that this man was only responding to the circumstances around him. He strikes me now less as an absurd and pathetic individual, and more as a man trying to make a living and carve out a niche for himself within the absurd and pathetic world of academia (not that it’s any more absurd or pathetic than any other profession).


I see him now as a man living in the real world and trying to make a go of it, however much the compromises hurt him.


I still hope I don’t turn out like that, but I can see how I might.


I think the difference between dreaming of being an artist as a teenager and struggling to actually be an artist as an adult comes down to this:


Though I no longer feel myself to be an impervious individual living outside all social systems, I’m still working to maintain the freedom and clarity of thought that allows me to see those systems for the absurd and pathetic constructs I still fully believe they are. In short, the perspective that allows one to see and embrace absurdity no longer comes for free, so the question is how hard do I want to fight to maintain it?