Salute Your Shorts: Martin Scorsese's "Life Lessons"

Movies Features Martin Scorsese
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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.

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 it.

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 comical.

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:

“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.”

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.