LOS ANGELES, May 5 (Reuters) Take heart, art house movie fans: Big bad Tom Cruise and his Hollywood thriller ''Mission: Impossible III'' is not the only film in theatres today.
Small-time director Terry Zwigoff, whose low-budget films have won fans with quirky tales about people living on the edge of mainstream America, sees his comedy ''Art School Confidential'' open this week too.
For people interested in art -- and not just movies, but painting, drawing and sculpting -- Zwigoff's dark and humorous ''Art School'' offers a wry take on artistic ambition.
The story of an aspiring painter and art-school student is far from that Hollywood action flick with a muscle-flexing hero played by Cruise who saves the world.
Zwigoff's history as a musician, collector and director might lead fans to think ''Art School'' is based on his life. But he told Reuters it comes from the mind of writer Daniel Clowes, whose comic book ''Ghost World'' he made into a movie in 2001.
''I did relate to it on the level of a filmmaker,'' Zwigoff said.
''I run into other filmmakers who have very successful careers -- mostly based on the art of self-promotion.'' Anyone following the media hype over ''M:i III'' knows Cruise is atop the Hollywood heap in the art of promoting a film.
Zwigoff, 57, feels more comfortable at home in San Francisco, away from movie crowds. He favours corduroy jeans and cardigan sweaters. His hair seems perpetually mussed. He talks in a low voice and favours tales of life's little oddities.
On the list of Zwigoff's personal ironies is the fact that he has little interest in comics, despite the fact that his breakthrough 1994 documentary ''Crumb'' centred on comic book writer and artist Robert Crumb and ''Ghost World'' and ''Art School'' are based on work by comic book writer Clowes.
COMIC CONFIDENTIAL Zwigoff did say, however, that transferring the comic flare of Crumb and Clowes to movie screens is made easier because all three share the same sense of aesthetics and humour.
''Art School'' follows high school geek Jerome Platz who longs to be a great painter like Picasso. But when Platz goes to college -- the top-notch Strathmore Institute -- he finds the competition tough and the creative egos supercharged.
He encounters boastful teachers, braggart students, art groupies and a serial killer. To win the heart of his girl, Jerome develops a creative style outside the mainstream, and as any artist will say, life on the edge is a life well-lived.
Laughing at all the high-minded, art talk? Well, keep in mind that one of Zwigoff's talents is to tell stories with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek.
''The whole film, to me, was a playful meditation about art,'' he said.
Zwigoff has become increasingly successful at telling stories about art and outsiders over the years. ''Crumb'' earned him numerous awards from critics groups. ''Ghost World,'' which tells how two fringe dwellers become friends, earned him and Clowes an Oscar nomination for screenwriting.
In 2003, his ''Bad Santa'' starring Billy Bob Thornton as a man who dresses as Santa to rob stores at Christmas was his big box office hit with global ticket sales of 76 million dollar.
But success has yet to go to Zwigoff's head, he said.
Zwigoff does not consider himself a big Hollywood director. He saves that distinction for Michael Bay (''Pearl Harbor'') and Steven Spielberg, and he refuses to make a movie in which a big-name box office draw, such as Cruise, is foisted upon him or has greater influence in making a movie than the director.
''I cannot force myself to do that, not because I have any integrity necessarily or arrogance about it. I just wouldn't know how to direct a person who is wrong for a role,'' he said.
''I don't have that many years left,'' he added. ''The films I want to make, I really want to be passionate about.'' Reuters CH DB0944