At some point in their formative years, every student of life must ask “What’s wrong with me?”—particularly after surviving an evening of excess: fuelled by an overdose of sex, drugs, thievery, booze, deceit or willful blindness in various combinations.
Sadly, not everyone survives. Happily, the false front of “I’m fine” combined with time—to forget blush-inducing indulgences—soon allow feelings of repose to trump humiliation and dread.
Todd Verow’s quasi-autobiographical recollection of life and death at the Rhode Island School of Design has much to say about objects, be they artistic, sexual or hallucinogenic.
Narrated and focussed primarily on the filmmaker’s probable alter ego, Joe (Tim Swain, always engaging but perhaps a touch too boyish to fully convince in his own metamorphosis), the freshman art student learns how to develop a body of work only after beginning to understand his own.
Lesson one comes in the personage of Meg (Amy Dellagiarino). She’s eager to be unwrapped and devoured by Joe’s roommate Mark (Nick Stern) and his buds only to end up yanking unborn bodies from her own. (What else than hand-struck bongos to accompany that desperate scene—Colin Owens’ original score is a marvel of fits-like-a-glove colours and textures; two helpings of the folksy “Time to Move Along” deftly underscore the on-screen situations.)
An early-in-the-term life drawing class, masterfully presided over by Brenda Crawley, lays thematic seeds that will be harvested on several planes. “Work from the inside out,” she advises the neophytes as they try to capture the model’s (Mike Guzman) beautifully proportioned physique.
Between classes, Joe soon discovers the object of his pent-up desire. Hustling the streets around campus is Ramon (Gil Bar-Sela has the look, feel and talent to carry the role even if not fully unleashed to reveal the root of his darker side: “I’ve forgotten you already, I feel nothing,” is more heard than absorbed). Soon, they’re competing for Johns, becoming friends but consummation of their lust—in one of the film’s most emotionally explosive scenes—occurs in a most unlikely place before the greedy eyes of a third party that would be equally at home in Andy Warhol’s Flesh, Heat, Trash trilogy (cross-reference below).
After accepting the first gift of many stolen objects from fellow student Jennifer (a fine range of moods and bravado from Julia Frey—her vodka heist done with Bonnie and Clyde cool), Joe soon has a confidante and co-conspirator with which to complete assignments (original or not …) or snort lines of “found” cocaine. They both feel the exceptionally tough love from their 2-D Design Teacher (Keith Herron). Mercilessly taunting or degrading his charges to the point of hatred, the brutal approach, nonetheless, has its desired effect. Their response to “Show me how much you hate me,” teaches the burgeoning artists how to harness any emotion and stoke their creativity.
Living on coffee, coke and adrenalin from partying into the wee hours, surviving difficult tricks or disguising themselves (Joe’s Mohawk cut from a possible bed mate becomes yet another symbol for what it takes—opportunity and willpower—to break the mould and develop the ability to be original) to avoid retribution, Joe and Jennifer throw themselves into a heady trip that very nearly reaches the station of no return.
Not everyone is so lucky.
Which incidents are fictional from Verow’s past matter not. A bit troubling is the notion that crime not only pays, it’s much better than work-study income. A marvellous set-up involving a scorned handmade dress (a small stapler in the purse is recommended in case of unexpected wardrobe malfunctions) never finds its payoff, just one example of narrative untidiness that slows the otherwise driving pace.
When this “Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” concludes, its cathartic intent is palpable; future projects—without faculty, long-lost friends or family “looking over the shoulder”—are highly anticipated objects of art to come. JWR