Brush Fire
Michael Koresky on Life Lessons

For an artist so concerned with the texture and longevity of the canvases and tools of his craft, Martin Scorsese has made surprisingly few films that are explicitly about the artistic process. Outside of the frustrated characters in New York, New York (chronically dissatisfied saxophonist Jimmy Doyle) and Hugo (forgotten, melancholy movie magician Georges Méliès), Scorsese’s loners do not normally have a creative outlet. In films as disparate as Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy, and The Age of Innocence, they tear up the world, with no way of figuring out how to stitch it back together. One could imagine Lionel Dobie, the painter furiously inhabited by Nick Nolte in Scorsese’s Life Lessons, as violent as Travis Bickle, wayward as Rupert Pupkin, or as cripplingly sad as Newland Archer had he no palette to stab with his brush or canvas to streak with colors. This forty-four-minute film is paced to his emotional and bodily rhythms, an internal force made vividly physical.

Life Lessons is the first of a trio of shorts that makes up the 1989 omnibus feature New York Stories, a project that first came to Scorsese via Woody Allen. (The third director was originally to be Steven Spielberg, but Francis Ford Coppola ultimately stepped in to complete the headline-worthy triumvirate.) It gave Scorsese a chance to make a film inspired by a favorite story, Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, about the stormy relationship between a writer and his pupil. With a literate screenplay by The Color of Money’s Richard Price (who suggested changing the characters to painters), Life Lessons is the rare two-hander from Scorsese, who prefers tales of individual organisms barely functioning within festering petri dish–like communities. Here we have Nolte’s Dobie and Rosanna Arquette’s Paulette, his assistant, protégé, and former lover, sharing the screen—mostly within a single, paint-spattered SoHo loft—for most of the running time. He is slaving over a large-scale piece that has to be ready for a show in three weeks; she has returned from a trip to Florida only to tell him she wants nothing more to do with him. Nevertheless she does help him with his work, meaning that she stokes his anger, desire, and sexual frustration, without which he doesn’t seem to be able to create. He is increasingly obsessed with her, though now she’s physically off-limits, sleeping in her own, impenetrable bedroom, visible only through a small hole in the wall near the apartment’s very high ceilings. Their characters parry and thrust at one another with an exaggerated aggression that seems to speak more to their own self-loathing than any genuine mutual dislike.

Much of it set to the saintly pop melody of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Life Lessons is bursting with the frazzled intensity of people desperately trying to communicate yet falling back on simplistic expressions of anger. The many raging bulls of Scorsese’s career tend to be overgrown, mewling children, from multiple De Niros (Johnny Boy to Jimmy Doyle to Jake LaMotta to Rupert Pupkin) to Pesci’s trigger-happy Tommy DeVito and Nicky Santoro—art-world star Dobie, although a more articulate, sellable buck, fits right in with these men, banging at the bars on their cribs. Because Dobie is an artist his frustration and anger are culturally sanctioned. His reputation even allows him to be bromidic with Paulette. When she begs him to look at her paintings and tell her what he thinks of them, wondering if, in his expert opinion, she does in fact have talent, Dobie responds, “It’s not about the talent . . . but about having no choice but to do it.” It’s all internal, he believes, an uncontrollable urge; art is the expression of roiling discontent. So he needs to need Paulette perhaps more then he needs Paulette. He obsesses over her bare foot as she lounges seductively on her bed. To crave this appendage is to be alive, and to desire is to create.

For this tale of creation through a man’s carefully calculated adversity, cinematic technique is aptly foregrounded. Scorsese, cinematographer Nestor Almendros, and editor Thelma Schoonmaker express Dobie’s furious energy as a series of visual dips and crescendos. The film is full of sudden tracking shots and unexpected cranes, smooth glides across Dobie’s rooms and his super-wide canvas; the tightly contained setting of the film allows for a controlled sort of chaos. As is so often the case in his work, Scorsese’s camera occasionally seems to be rushing forward to catch up with his actors’ movements, as though in fear of being left behind, or of missing some crucial gesture. Scorsese’s penchant for zeroing in on details, essential or not, makes sense in a narrative that takes on the eye of a painter. The film even starts with a series of irises opening on globs of different colored paint on palettes. Later, when Dobie is in the midst of his paint-spattered tumult, Almendros’s camera swiftly follows brush to canvas, back and forth, once and again, before Schoonmaker cuts to a series of streaks, dabs, and clumps of color. It’s impossible to figure out what Dobie is making, as we don’t get a full view of the painting until the end of the film, but it’s crystal clear where it’s coming from and this is all that matters in the furious moment.

While making this film, Scorsese knew a little something about artistic struggle. He had just come off the embattled production and hugely controversial reception of The Last Temptation of Christ, along with Raging Bull probably Scorsese’s greatest claim to being a larger-than-life auteur—a personal artist in a medium overrun with mercenaries. Last Temptation was attacked by Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals during and after production as morally offensive, and their rage ultimately went mainstream, whipping up a media frenzy; most of those who would deem it incendiary—mainly for the implication that Jesus had sex—had not even seen it. As a result of the full-on war waged against the film, Scorsese, who claimed to have initially seen nothing controversial in this ultimately quite pious and very Catholic story, would have no choice but to play the part of the misunderstood artist. Universal, the studio behind the project, and distributor Cineplex Odeon even released a statement upon the film’s August 1988 release, saying they would “support Martin Scorsese’s right to express his personal, artistic, and religious visions, and the right of individuals to decide what they will see and think.” Scorsese was then, depending on your view, either a movie martyr or a Satanic emissary—but either way a lightning rod, and a name to be reckoned with, which hadn’t been the case during much of his experimental eighties, full of for-hire gigs (Amazing Stories, The Color of Money, the video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad”) and minor-key critical successes that left audiences indifferent (The King of Comedy, After Hours).

Scorsese began shooting Life Lessons in the midst of all this controversy, going into preproduction directly after returning from Last Temptation’s September 1988 screening at the Venice Film Festival. By his accounts, it was a stressful time, marked by physical and emotional exhaustion. It’s no great stretch, then, to propose that Life Lessons, though gestating for years (Woody Allen first approached Scorsese in 1986, and Scorsese had toyed with the idea of adapting The Gambler since the seventies), is, like Dobie’s work, the result of an artist who has taken advantage of, perhaps even nourished, adversity.

As though to cast the impenetrable, churlish Dobie’s work in a comparatively good light, Price’s script sets him up with a nemesis, performance artist Gregory Stark played by a young and surprisingly sleek Steve Buscemi. This kid, on whom Paulette misguidedly crushes, is initially set up as Dobie’s polar opposite—his sold-out gig, in which he monologues on abandoned subway tracks under a climactically exploding light-bulb, is clearly little more than a glorified stand-up routine. Dobie seems to be all id, Stark all calculation. Yet as the film goes on, it becomes clear that both are just flip sides of the same coin. Both habituate the SoHo eighties art scene (touched upon in After Hours’ eccentric milieu), in which the latest flavor of the month is raised up on a pedestal—preferably someone who can make a mess with his art and then “clean up real good” in a tux and clutch a champagne glass with the barest but attractively present hint of resentment. Dobie is as much a game player as Stark. His impressive finished painting, which we finally are allowed to view only after his relationship with Paulette has terminated for good, is all too apt: a burned bridge.

One leaves Life Lessons pleasantly unsure of whether the film views Dobie as a great, or even good artist. Even more provocatively, the film’s ambivalent take on the art world leaves one unsure of how Scorsese sees himself in all this. It’s a fitting close to Scorsese’s eighties, a decade in which the director was constantly juggling art and commerce, and trying to figure out what to do in the gap between them. Of course it’s tempting for the auteur-obsessed among us to define him as the cinematic equivalent of Dobie, a solitary painter, dabbing away until the canvas is just right. Even Scorsese must buy into the mythology sometimes: his first endeavor after Life Lessons was portraying Vincent Van Gogh for Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.