Essentials #24: LIFE LESSONS (1989)

Matthew Oquendo
Oct 7, 2016 · 7 min read

New York City. Three short films. Three legendary filmmakers. But only one that works.

In 1989, a cinematic event of legendary proportions occurred: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen teamed up for the anthology piece, NEW YORK STORIES.

Unfortunately, in this rare collaboration, only one of the three shorts — Scorsese’s Life Lessons — is actually good. Like really good. Not to detract from the filmmaking prowess of Coppola or Allen, whose short films fell flat. But hey, even Kobe had off nights.

Not only is Life Lessons great on all cylinders, but it really has interesting things to say about the creative process:

  • What is the relationship between the artist, their work, and the people who inspire it?
  • Is there a direct link between creativity and the emotional turmoils in life?
  • Are the two, in fact, co-dependent on one another?

These ideas are explored in the glimpse of the life of fictional artist, LIONEL DOBIE (in a great performance by Nick Nolte), who’s commissioned for an art show that’s premiering in “three weeks.” Lionel, much like his scruffy appearance, is all tapped out. No ideas. No creative juices flowing. We enter the film through a series of iris-out and dolly-in shots that are textbook Scorsese. Lionel mulls about his canvas while Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale echoes in the background — one of the most beautiful pairings of image and music in a scene — it would become a recurring melody throughout.

So what does Lionel do? He goes to the airport to pick up his apprentice/girlfriend, PAULETTE (Patricia Arquette), who is coming back to New York City. He waits for her at the gate. They get into an argument. She confesses she had an affair on her trip. She’s young, unsure of herself like many people in their 20s. Lionel talks her into coming back home with him. He’s all out of ideas. People sometimes pour their frustrations through physical means, whether alcohol, food, exercise, or in Lionel’s case: sex.

And so we have the artist, his creative block, and his ‘muse’ he thinks will get him back on track. I can’t talk more about the story. It’s only 44 minutes. But a key sequence is about midway when Paulette asks Lionel for his opinion on her art. He’s running through the motions of his responses because he doesn’t want to hurt her feelings [and his chances of getting laid], but in the midst of his bullshit there’s some cold truth:

LIONEL DOBIE: “You make art because you have to. Because you got no choice. It’s not about talents, it’s about no choice but to do it…who knows? Who cares? You wanna give it up? You give it up, then you weren’t a real artist to begin with.”

As a filmmaker | photographer, I do get uninspired. I do get quasi-nihilistic in the “what’s the point of it all?” sense, just like people who have bad days and happy ones. There is always a question of: Why am I doing this? Why I am working on my craft? Why do other peoples’ opinions matter?

A lot of Whys.

But this quote, written by screenwriter Richard Price, says it all. You engage in art because you must. It’s fundamentally a part of you. It’s in your DNA. To fight it would be against your nature. And this can be said about anyone passionate about their profession, just switch out ‘artist’ for ‘teacher,’ ‘lawyer,’ ‘engineer,’ etc.

  • For more on this theme, check out Powell and Pressburger’s THE RED SHOES (Scorsese’s favorite film), which I will soon write about.

On a macro scale, there is a historical pattern: bad times produce good art. Just look at World War II and the kinds of filmmakers it produced. Go back 600 years to the Renaissance with the Borgias. Go back 2 millenniums before that to the Greco-Roman age. This is just a small sample, but is there a correlation between emotional turmoil and creativity?

On a micro scale, perhaps an artist must suffer for their work, in their personal life, in their relationships for them to enter a flow of creativity. With Lionel and Paulette, he needed his problems with her in order for him to overcome his creative roadblock. Personally, I’m not sure yet if this is required. I’ve lived a pretty normal life so far. Maybe I need a few ex-wives and kids running around to come to this perspective.

The earliest humans were painting pictures on caves before any organized civilization or culture. Perhaps art is a natural human expression, a part of the human experience, which is why human emotions naturally follow it.

I’m a Scorsese fanboy so I must point out the master’s craft. Much like his protagonist, Scorsese is like a painter with his camera. Every movement, every edit, and use of blocking is immaculate. His pairing of music with the moving image is what every filmmaker needs to study. Like music, audiences are more keen to watch a film when they get into its visual rhythm. For example, there’s a wonderful montage when Paulette watches Lionel, in pensive madness, violently stroking his paintings while Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” roars in the background. Notice the relation of camera movement, editing, and subjectivity all in sync to showcase Paulette’s awe.

Not only is Martin Scorsese a great filmmaker, but he’s also a film historian. I’ve noticed the greats (at least to me) are all avid film historians and incorporate film lineage into their work and make it their own. On a technical scale, watching Life Lessons is like watching an artist take us through the entire history of film with his camera. Just look at the iris in’s/out’s of the opening scene.

Why am I not talking about Coppola and Allen’s film?

Like I said, they just don’t work [and I want reiterate: I’m a yuuge Woody Allen and Francis Coppola fan]. Aside from problems with their stories, I think the key point from this collaboration is that even the great ones have trouble with the short film, which is a tricky subject to master. On one hand, you can’t develop characters or a story as much as you would in a feature, but at the same time, a short like this must have something an audience can emphasize with.

There is a lost art of the short (especially ones 30 minutes or longer). My most recent movie (as of 2016) was about 25 minutes long and I was told by some festival coordinators and screeners that the general audience no longer watches short films. They want 15 minutes or under. Preferably 10. Even 5. They want to be able to program more shorts, especially since it’s much easier to make a movie nowadays, and theatres need people to fill it.

Movies should not have limitations on length. If there’s a good story, an intriguing character or theme, and if you can create a unique structure for it, make it. Scorsese’s 44-minute film was the only one that felt like it successfully reached the parameters of the short film, while the other two played more like condensed features.

Short films are slices of life. They work better as glimpses of an idea, character, or story rather than comprehensive exams like features. Life Lessons is precisely that. It takes an interesting character, themes, tosses them up, and lets the pieces fall where they may.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

  • Look for a young Steve Buscemi as a rare appearance as a young, hunky stud whom Paulette has an affair with. Steve Buscemi as a stud?!?
  • Lionel’s art is actually the work of artist Chuck Connolly. There’s an interesting read about a feud he had with Scorsese regarding the film that was eventually settled in 2015.
  • The music for this film is so great! It pairs well with all the cinematic tricks Scorsese employs.
  • Nestor Almendros (who famously shot Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven) lensed this film in a wonderful collaboration with Marty.

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

Matthew Oquendo

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Filmmaker | Photographer | MatthewOquendo.com

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