Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films,
music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that
generally gets ignored.
In 1986, Woody Allen approached his acquaintances Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese about collaborating on an anthology film together. The trio met in a screening room and agreed on their interests, thinking to do something like Boccaccio ’70 or RoGoPaG, Italian anthologies from the '60s that featured several short films (each 30-45 minutes in length) tied together. Other than perhaps a mutual theme, the trio wouldn’t discuss their material until the feature opened, making it a surprise to everyone what would result. Unfortunately, after a few months, Spielberg backed out of the project and somehow Francis Ford Coppola was brought in to fill the gap, resulting in a last third of the film which, even for late-'80s Coppola, was pretty disastrous. Despite these changes, Coppola mentioned the project to his friend Jeffrey Katzenberg, at the time head of Touchstone Pictures, who scooped up the feature and soon the trio set out filming.
“You give it up and you were never an artist in the first
place.”“I indulge in love and indulge in making my stuff and
they feed off
each other.”“You make art because you have to, because you’ve
got no choice.
It’s not about talent, it’s about no choice but to do it.”
Reeling after the disappointing (to say the least) reception of his
long-gestating dream project Last Temptation of Christ, and in
general a very bad decade for him in terms of getting the projects he
wanted made, Scorsese saw this as an opportunity to revive another of his
old ideas. In 1973, Scorsese’s friend Jay Cocks (film critic for Time
and screenwriter for The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York,
and numerous other uncredited pictures) gave him a copy of
Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, along with the journals and letters of
Dostoyevsky’s mistress Apollinaria Suslova, who the book was in some
ways inspired by. The Gambler was already a favorite work of
Scorsese’s, but the book’s odd creation related particularly to the
director’s life. The Gambler focuses on a man pursuing a younger
woman who eventually rejects him, though the accompanying diaries
written by Suslova, a twenty-something admirer of the 42-year-old author
who herself was an aspiring writer, reveal the autobiographical nature
of the novella. When she suddenly breaks off the relationship before a
trip to Italy, he proposes that they can continue together platonically,
to the point where eventually he even helps her write letters to
another man. Scorsese had Paul Schrader, who had penned Taxi Driver
and Raging Bull, write up a screenplay but nothing ever came of
Scorsese turned to Richard Price, who he’d worked with on the “Bad”
music video and The Color of Money (and who most recently wrote
for The Wire), and had him rework the Dostoyevsky story, but in
contemporary times and with an emphasis on the relationship between art
and love. Price decided that rather than using a writer as the story’s
protagonist, they should choose a more visually interesting artist and
switched the character’s profession to a painter. Scorsese then put in
two weeks of pre-production work before an extremely quick, for him,
four weeks of shooting time. The result is the best of Scorsese’s short
films and a mission statement of sorts on the role of art in life for
the director that’s both darkly autobiographical and frequently
As “Life Lesssons” begins, Nick Nolte’s Lionel Dobie is asked about the
state of his latest painting, which is set to be the centerpiece of his
show in three weeks. Unfortunately, he’s had a mental block and the
painting is nowhere, causing him to fire his agent. After that, he
heads to the airport to pick up his girlfriend Paulette (Rosanna
Arquette), an Americanized version of Dostoyevsky’s Polina, who reveals
that she was not, in fact, away with her girlfriends, but was rather with
another man she’s been seeing. She shuts Dobie down, but he convinces
her to return to his loft nonetheless because she has pretty much
nowhere else to go.
The rest of the movie is for the most part committed to the pair’s
relationship, as Dobie continues to pine after the girl still sleeping
in his loft while she’s determined to head elsewhere and forge a new
path. This is largely spurred by Dobie’s evaluation of her works; Dobie
refuses to acknowledge that her paintings are any good, so she refuses
to be in a relationship with him. This leads to awkward sequences
during both a friend of Dobie’s birthday party and a performance by the
man who left Paulette during her trip. Eventually his boozie, obsessive
love wears on her and Paulette leaves, at which point Dobie has his art
opening where he picks up another beautiful, 20-something aspiring
artist. The cycle begins again.
One thing I’ve only obliquely mentioned above is Dobie’s painting
itself. What begins as just a few bits of paint on an epic, 20’x8’ or
so canvas quickly becomes the movie’s focus as soon as Paulette returns
to the loft. Dobie’s sexually frustrated energy is channeled straight
onto the painting, and as the movie continues we see directly how each
event influences the painting itself. By the end of the film, we’ve
grown with Dobie’s centerpiece and it’s almost become another character.
While much of “Life Lessons” is about Dobie and Paulette’s
relationship, it’s just as much about the creation of a work of art and
what goes into it. This is what gives the movie its long-term resonance
and seems the closest that Scorsese has ever come to giving a thesis
for what his works are about, how pain and suffering are the genesis for
his creations, and how time and time again this has come at the serious
expense of his personal life.
Scorsese’s relationship with Dobie is also emphasized by painting itself
as the choice for Dobie’s profession. As a visual art, there’s the
obvious relationship with filmmaking, but more importantly Scorsese’s
first dream as an artist was in fact to succeed as a painter.
Unfortunately, his asthma prevented this from ever becoming a reality,
to the point that he required assistance on the set of “Life Lessons”
despite the immense size of Dobie’s loft. Like Kurosawa, another
painter-turned-filmmaker, Scorsese storyboards every single shot, and
the director’s films are especially related to visual arts.
The most striking part of “Life Lessons” is undoubtedly the way Dobie’s
work is photographed by him and the cinematographer Nestor Almendros,
who’s most famous for his work with Francois Truffaut and Terrence
Malick. Dobie’s large, expressive brush strokes emulate Scorsese’s use
of film, with style itself becoming much of the work’s substance.
Beyond this, a wide range of stylistic devices is also used with the
painting from slow-motion to jump cuts to pans, tilts, zooms and irises.
These sequences are a tour de force, making it so that the most
virtuosically filmed part of the entire short is not the characters or
sequences involving them but rather this painting. Paulette is
essentially little more than a tool for Dobie’s creativity, and her
importance as an individual is far less than the painting’s itself.
Paulette can be and at the end of the film is replaced by another girl,
but the painting is unique. Stenciled on Dobie’s truck is “Russian
Roulette Inc.,” and as observed by Ben Nyce, this is because for Dobie
as well as Scorsese every new painting is a life-risking effort at the
expense of personal relationships, which Dobie has long since rid
himself of other than lovers.
Because of Dobie’s largely unique role as Scorsese’s mouthpiece (Harvey
Keitel in Mean Streets also bears a very strong relationship with the
director), there’s quite a weight in all of the character’s various
aphorisms about art and life. They all seem straight from the director,
even though they’re much blunter than anything the genial man would
ever say. Here’s some of my favorites:
Of course, the woman as an impediment to life trope wasn’t anything
new to Scorsese when “Life Lessons” came out. It was fairly central to New
York, New York and Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta needed to
abstain from sex before the big fight, and even The Last Temptation
of Christ essentially focuses on Christ choosing redemption over
Mary Magdalene. What sets this time apart is that it also requires the
relationship in order to trigger the art. Abstaining is necessary for
creation, but so is the relationship itself. It’s a different
observation that belies a lot more of Scorsese’s own past and when
expressed by him has a special level of truth to it that takes this not
particularly deep concept and gives it new meaning.
“Life Lessons” has a few other aspects to recommend it aside from the
interplay between the film and its central creator. One of these is
Scorsese’s constant use of music from Procol Harum, including a song
other than “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” something I’m always a big fan of.
The short also features one of the first real roles for Steve Buscemi,
who plays Paulette’s performance artist ex-boyfriend. Not only that,
but Nick Nolte’s performance, in which he was encouraged by Scorsese to
drink on set as part of his character, is a gregarious, scenery-chewing
performance of the type that few can pull off without going
over-the-top—in “Life Lessons” it works wonderfully.
I’ll be returning to Scorsese in this column soon, as he’s had a
particularly long and fruitful career in short films alongside his more
well-known work with features, but since “Life Lessons” is still the
greatest of these works and is among his best films of any length it’s a
good place to start. Its special relationship with the rest of his
oeuvre, as something of a cipher from which to understand why his works
are almost always imbued with greater strength than many peers who have
used the same tools for similar purposes, makes it essential viewing for
any fans of Scorsese regardless of the short’s relative obscurity.