Monday, May 11, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XX: New York Stories: Life Lessons

New York Stories - Life Lessons (1989) *** ½
Directed By:
Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Richard Price.
Starring: Nick Nolte (Lionel Dobie), Rosanna Arquette (Paulette), Steve Buscemi (Gregory Stark), Patrick O'Neal (Phillip Fowler), Jesse Borrego (Reuben Toro), Gregorij von Leitis (Kurt Bloom).

In 1989, someone came up with the brilliant idea of getting Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen together to each make a short film set in New York City, and then combine the three shorts into a feature film. How could the experiment go wrong? These were three New York filmmakers, and three of the greatest directors in the world. Surely all three of them would make great movies right? Wrong. Scorsese’s sequence, entitled Life Lessons, is the only one of the three films that is any good at all. Coppola’s segment, co-written with his daughter Sophia about a little girl they might as well called Eloise, and not Zoe, was an embarrassment. Allen’s segment, about his mother disappearing during a magic act only to reappear in the sky above New York City to complain to her son for the whole city to hear, was amusing in fits and starts but never added up to much. Thankfully, as this series is about the films of Martin Scorsese, I didn’t subject myself to either of those segments a second time – just Scorsese’s.

Life Lessons stars Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie, a famous artist living in a huge abandoned warehouse where he cracks up rock music, and paints his abstract work all night. Everyone agrees that Dobie is a genius, although he drives his agent crazy by refusing to him his work, even though he’s got another show coming up in less than three weeks.

The film opens as Dobie goes to the airport to pick up his much younger assistant, and lover, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), who told him she was travelling to Florida with a girlfriend. In fact, she didn’t go with a girl, but went with Gregory Stark (Steve Buscemi), a performance artist (prompting Dobie to ask what the hell a performance artist is – “You sing, you dance, you act. There’s no such thing as performance art” he tells her. Paulette wants to leave Dobie, and New York, to move back in with her parents in Indiana. Dobie convinces her to stay. She is an aspiring artist, and there is no better place to be than New York. Working for a great artist like Dobie will allow her entrance into the art world, and he can provide valuable “Life Lessons” to her. She agrees to stay, but only if their relationship is no longer sexual. He agrees.

It becomes clear during the running time of the movie that both characters are deliberating provoking, and using the other one. Before the movie began, Dobie was using Paulette sexually, and she was using him as a teacher, and as way to break into the art world. When she returns, she tries to continue this way, but for Dobie he is using her in a different way. His art needs turmoil in order to work, and when Paulette dates people like Stark, or another artist, he becomes jealous, and this jealously fuels his work. We see his work, and the themes of darkness and heartbreak running through them as he works out his relationship with Paulette. We can see burning bridges, dark clouds and tragic clowns – a reference to Pagliacci, the famous opera about a jealous clown who murders his wife on stage, that at one point Dobie listens to. Dobie realizes he needs this turmoil or his work, which means everything to him, would be impossible. He continually tells Paulette that he loves her, and will do anything for her, and she continues to stay. He is deliberately vague when talking about her paintings – he isn’t really interested – but he is willing to defend her is public, or humiliate himself, if that what it will take to keep her around.

Poor Paulette believes that she is really affecting Lionel with her provocations, but really she is simply fueling his work. It is telling that in her final scene in the movie, where she finally decides to leave him, that he doesn’t try and stop her. He doesn’t need to – he has finished the work for his latest show.

The film is classic Scorsese, in that he has rock music pumping throughout the entire movie (notably “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Like a Rolling Stone”), and his camera is constantly moving, circling the action. Rarely has painting seemed so exciting on screen, and Scorsese uses his camera to get inside Lionel’s little world. The film, like many of Scorsese’s work, never really looks seriously at Paulette, but instead sees her as Lionel does. He is attracted to her sexually, yes, and the camera lovingly caresses her body, but it is this desire, and the jealously it fuels, that Lionel really needs from her.

The last scene in the movie is one of the most telling. Lionel has used up Paulette, who can no longer do anything for him. She has been broken, not just by Lionel, but also by the other men in her life. At his new show, he approaches a beautiful young woman pouring drinks. She tells him that she is an aspiring artist, and he has he happens to have a job opening for an assistant. This will provide her with invaluable Life Lessons, as well as time to do her own work. The poor girl. She has no idea what she’s in for.

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