Actor, director, composer Andy Garcia’s The Lost City is billed as a love song to Garcia’s native Cuba, to the island as it existed before Fidel Castro’s revolution. The movie attempts to evoke a paradise lost, a land of music and dance and family destroyed by corruption and violence.
Garcia plays Fico Fellove, owner of a Havana nightclub. He brings to mind Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine from Casablanca, a white-coat-clad impresario, a no-nonsense man who refuses to believe in political causes and only reluctantly takes up the fight. As the revolution comes to a boil, his family is torn apart as his father preaches moderation to Fico’s unyieldingly radical brothers and Fico himself does everything he can to hold the family together.
In the history of the movies, there is only a handful of actor-directors who manage to do both jobs well. Usually they are adept at one job or the other but fail when they take on both at once, and unfortunately Garcia is no exception.
The movie is rather hamfisted, beating us over the head with its messages, its themes and its symbols. “I am a sincere man,” Garcia says toward the end of the film, and that is both his virtue and his vice as a director. He is so close to this material that he is unable to distinguish the affecting from the overwrought, the drama from the melodrama, the romantic from the trite.
Films like this are often called vanity projects, and while the term seems a bit harsh for a project as heartfelt as this, it nevertheless has a certain amount of truth to it. Garcia makes several textbook vanity project mistakes. First of all, the camera rarely leaves him; he is in virtually every scene. It is a rare director who can extract from himself a great performance; a second opinion is desperately needed. Garcia attempts to underplay the role of Fico, whether by choice or by limitation, but just doesn’t pull it off, giving off not the slightest spark of genuine emotion.
The notion of the auteur is so enticing, so romantic, that it has cemented its place in the public consciousness despite the fact that it is still hotly debated; the public generally believes that movies are solely the work of the director. And though this has sometimes been the case, more often than not, films are collaborative and benefit greatly from that fact. Garcia would have done far better had he hired a director, or at least an equal co-director, to help shape the stilted performances of Garcia and his cast and to help smooth the plot transitions that Garcia patches up with awkward expository dialogue.
At times the film strays erratically into histrionics. As director, Garcia attempts a sort of expressionistic symbolism, especially in the film’s final moments, but these episodes come across as silly and amateurish. And throughout the film, flowery but trite poetic statements flow from the mouths of characters at the most unlikely of moments.
Even Bill Murray can’t save the film; his superfluous sad-eyed comedic character parachutes in now and then to rescue a scene from itself, but the script is so dull that Murray’s improvisations have nothing of substance to build on.
Garcia has so often played the ruthless, cynical tough guy that it seems he can do nothing else. Whether he simply can’t or whether we won’t let him is unclear. But for whatever reason, he’s simply not believable as the good guy. Every smile, every good deed seems disingenuous. “I’m no good at being noble,” the Bogart character says in Casablanca, and the same goes for Garcia.
Terry Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential veers in the opposite direction. Zwigoff has an apparent predilection for misfits, as well as for cartoonists, not that the two are mutually exclusive. Zwigoff, a San Francisco resident, made Crumb, the award-winning documentary about the life and art of 1960s Bay Area underground cartoonist R. Crumb, as well as Ghost World, a movie based on the comic art of Oakland’s Daniel Clowes.
Art School Confidential is another collaboration with Clowes and the results are similar, producing a film that falls in that murky category somewhere between drama and comedy.
The movie features small, strong performances from a variety of indie-film creepcases like John Malkovich and Steve Buscemi. The film has fun ridiculing art school student stereotypes, but one needn’t have attended art school to recognize them; they’re familiar to anyone who did time in a college dorm or whose high school had a drama department.
The movie is essentially a smarter, more thoughtful version of any number of teen movies: An awkward dreamer of a boy (Jerome, played by Max Minghella) moons over a girl (Sophia Myles) who opts instead for a tall, blonde jock type while the boy tries to woo her back with some kind of public demonstration of his prowess. It’s actually a great deal more complicated than this, but to say more would be to give too much away.
The satire is entertaining but the film gets more interesting, if a bit clumsy, as it enters its final stretch. Jerome, eager to win first prize at a showing of student artwork, commits an artistic and ethical crime, yet is simultaneously being tracked as a suspect for a real-world crime. The film plays a subtle and effective trick, somehow managing to develop the suspense not from the threat that Jerome might serve time in jail but that he might be exposed as an artistic fraud.
As with The Lost City, there are a few lame expository moments as the characters and the camera go out of their way to explain the obvious to us. But somehow these transgressions are more in keeping with the teen-drama aspects of the film: a little lame, a little light, a little trite.
However, Art School Confidential uses this a device for something deeper, as a way to comment on art itself. The teachers are portrayed as has-beens and the students are pretentious, talentless blowhards, while the two artists who display any sort of real talent—Jerome and an alcoholic recluse played by Jim Broadbent—are vilified. The only way to gain recognition is to play the game, to incorporate sham with sincerity, showmanship with artistic integrity; to resign oneself to the cult of personality and sell oneself as a commodity for the sake of acquiring an audience. And ultimately, whether he likes it or not, the artist finds that the artifice becomes an art in itself.