44 Life Lessons: Reflections on a Neglected Scorsese Masterpiece

Andrew Lewis Conn on Martin Scorsese’s “Life Lessons”

I’ve always longed to write about “Life Lessons,” a short film by Martin Scorsese from 1989, written by Richard Price and starring Nick Nolte and Rosanna Arquette—about a famous middle-aged artist named Lionel Dobie, his young live-in girlfriend-cum-assistant Paulette, their Punch and Judy relationship, a looming gallery show deadline, and his fetishistic desire to kiss her foot. It’s an extraordinary work—perhaps the loosest and funniest thing Scorsese’s ever done—and if the picture has been largely overlooked or forgotten it’s perhaps because it appeared as part of the omnibus picture, New York Stories, and the rest of that movie, with shorts from Woody Allen and Francis Ford Coppola (his segment co-written by a then-teenage Sofia) is such a negligible grab bag. (The Woody Allen picture, “Oedipus Wrecks,” is funny, but one-note, the filmic equivalent of a New Yorker scribble. The Coppola piece is spun sugar; it dissolves while you watch.)

I’ve been obsessing over “Life Lessons” for years and must have seen it something like fifteen or twenty times now. I think it’s a masterpiece—one of the four or five greatest things Scorsese has ever done—and propose here for its twenty-fifth anniversary a thought for each of the picture’s glorious 44 minutes.


“Life Lessons” is very loosely based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella, The Gambler. More accurately, its story is something like a straight-up adaptation of that short book—as astringent as a shot of vodka—mixed with the circumstances behind the story’s writing. Legend has it that Dostoyevsky, suffering from terrible gambling debts, made with his publisher a kind of deal with the devil: the author agreed to deliver a complete manuscript within thirty days or relinquish the rights to all of his work. So, here, in the picture’s first scene, Dobie’s art dealer (Patrick O’Neal, perfectly cast) comes round the abstract painter’s Soho loft to have a look at new work for a major exhibition coming up in three weeks, to which the big man responds that he has nothing to show and is “going to get slaughtered, man.”

In the film’s next scene, Dobie surprises Paulette by picking her up at the airport, whereupon the young woman tells him she was in Florida with another man, the performance artist Gregory Stark, not a girlfriend like she’d said, and that she’s returned to New York intending to leave the painter. Dobie convinces her to stay: that she’s got a good deal as his assistant, that they’re adults and she can continue on with him as “employer-employee,” that she doesn’t have to sleep with him if she doesn’t want to, but if she decides to leave, if she drags it out, “I’ll die, you know that.” With this move, Dobie places himself into some kind of sexual torture crucible, and the name stenciled on the side of the pickup truck whose slamming closes the scene—Russian Roulette—signals both the self-inflicted nature of Dobie’s experiment and works as an elegant hat-tip to Old Dusty.


This is all a lot funnier than it sounds. If the film found Scorsese at something of a low ebb in mid-career—following smaller, oddly received movies that include The King of Comedy, After Hours, and The Color of Money (a not-bad picture, but still very much a studio job, a star vehicle, and the only sequel in the Scorsese canon), and the bruising religio-media firestorm he suffered over the heartrendingly sincere The Last Temptation of Christ—with its speed and irony, its lightness and looseness this little picture must have marked some kind of artistic renewal. Scorsese’s next movie was Goodfellas.


Cinematic rule of thumb confirmed by “Life Lessons”: movies about writers generally suck because it’s difficult to visualize this most sedentary and internal of occupations (ergo, lots of furrowed brows, crumpled balls of paper, clacking typewriters, and when all else fails, stories about writers going batshit crazy), but movies about visual artists are often pretty good!


Difficult as it might be for a younger generation most likely familiar with his wackadoodle mugshot to believe, there was a moment in the late 80s and early 90s when Nick Nolte seemed poised to become perhaps America’s major leading actor, as method-authentic as De Niro or Pacino but paired with a kind of masculine heft reminiscent of old school movie stars like Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, or Burt Lancaster. Nolte has always been the most physical of performers and his look in this film is fantastic—all beard and straggly hair, oversized glasses, filthy, paint-encrusted clothes, packing maybe 220-230 pounds of prime chuck. With his loping animal grace, Nolte looks like a saggy St. Bernard left out in the rain. And if his Dobie isn’t exactly an intellectual, he is wily, and the actor’s animal instincts and cunning fit the character just right. Then there’s Nolte’s voice, which must be counted one of the marvels of post-war American film, a voice like an archeological dig (it’s got layers, strata). If this little film has size, weight that transcends its brief running time, it’s largely because Nolte pitches his performance on an heroic scale.


Nolte losing the Oscar he so deserved for Paul Schrader’s Affliction—a vivisecting portrait of American masculinity gone off the rails—to hammy Roberto Benigni’s Holocaust minstrel show, Life is Beautiful, was, shall we say, not one of the Academy’s finer moments.


Pliant, pillow-lipped Rosanna Arquette is almost equally wonderful as Dobie’s mistress. If Nolte was improbably named People’s Sexiest Man of the Year in 1992, Arquette had a corresponding moment in her Executioner’s Song-Desperately Seeking Susan-After Hours heyday when she was the sexiest-softest thing on God’s green earth, and demonstrated every sign of becoming a kind of wised-up modern-day Marilyn Monroe.


Per the above, late in the picture Arquette has a very funny, very sexy bit of business with a tea bag.


Before he was Mr. Pink, before he was Nucky Thompson, before he was incalculably weird, Steve Buscemi was really cool! Playing the perfectly named Gregory Stark, performance artist and downtown lothario, whose fling with and hot potato dropping of Paulette sets the plot in motion, Buscemi is indelible in his two short scenes, looking like every smartass self-appointed philosopher king who ever haunted a college dorm hall at 3AM.


Why didn’t the magically pop-eyed Illeana Douglas—who has a couple of moments as Paulette’s best friend, and later shined as Nolte’s mistress who gets half her face chewed off by DeNiro’s Max Cady in Cape Fear—become a bigger deal? This is an actress one could imagine having bloomed in ‘30s and ‘40s musical comedies, and she’s wonderful in the picture she carried, Allison Anders’s Grace of My Heart (1996).


In his review of the novel Lush LifeThe New Yorker critic James Wood praised Richard Price for having not just a remarkable ear for dialogue but a mind for dialogue. “An ‘ear’ for dialogue always seems to imply reportorial or stenographic prowess, the writer sitting in a bar or a bus, studiously agog for the modern mot,” Wood writes. “And, indeed, one would have to get very drunk or ride on a magic bus to hear the kinds of anarchic metaphor, wild figuration, mashed slang, and frequent poetry that Richard Price creates on the page.” He’s right. Price’s language—effortless aphoristic, at once naturalistic and stylized, hopped-up and ice cube cool—perfectly matches Nolte’s gifts as performer. He’s never written a better script.


Classic Price exchange 1 (Dobie, on how these times they are-a-changin’):

“I heard these two kids in a restaurant yesterday, one said, ‘What’s chocolate pudding?’ The other said, ‘It’s good, it’s a lot like chocolate mousse.’”


Classic Price exchange 2 (Paulette, expressing her chagrin that Dobie is waiting for her at the airport):

“You should listen to your [answering] machine now and then.”

Listen to your machine?! Doesn’t that have a horrifying ring to it that expression, ‘Listen to your machine.’


Classic Price exchange 3 (Dobie, insulting Paulette’s choice of bedmates):

“What the hell is a performance artist? A person’s an actor, a singer, a dancer.

I mean, do you call the guy who picks up your garbage a sanitary engineer?”


Classic Price exchange 4 (on agreeing to keep the girl on as his live-in employee, sans sexual privileges):

“Baby, I’m your ally against horse dung and fraud. And that’s as far as it goes from now on.”


Classic Price exchange 5 (Or, what not to say to one’s lover as they’re walking out the door as a way to impress upon them the seriousness of one’s romantic integrity):

“Hell, I was married four times since before you were even born!”


Not incidentally, “Life Lessons” has a suspense structure. The whole thing is constructed like Speed or Armageddon, with the beat-the-clock formula applied to an existential psycho-sexual situation rather than an apocalyptic imperative. We know from the film’s opening that Dobie’s got just days to produce a gallery full of new work or risk career-ending embarrassment. That deadline, and the need for this burn-out to do whatever it takes to produce, to crank up the inspiration machine one more time, to enter the creative arena and manufacture the emotional turmoil he needs in order to produce—hangs over the entire film.


Related to the above, “Life Lessons” becomes, then, at once a romantic and hilarious portrait of the artist as abusive and self-abusing monster. And, as such, it’s open to autobiographical reading: one suspects there’s more than a little transference/identification work going on here related to Scorsese facing artistic indecision and difficulties getting projects financed in mid-career. Detachment and forgiveness, too.


Scorsese, like Orson Welles, has always been the most nakedly autobiographical of American auteurs, the director most incapable of phoning it in or making impersonal work. He pumps his obsessions—about art, sex, music, Catholic guilt, machismo—into even unworthy material that can’t carry the burden of his neuroses, which is why his worst films can come off as overwrought, grinding, hectoring. But here he’s at his most inspired and self-aware. “Life Lessons” is a distillation of everything wonderful about the director—the love of music and its masterful deployment, camera moves eternally wedded to psychology, the deepest respect for and kinship with actors—without any of his weaknesses.


Per the above, the Scorsese pictures of which I strenuously disapprove: Bringing Out the Dead, CasinoCape Fear, and The Wolf of Wall Street. His Oscar winner, The Departed, is a clever mouse-trappy thing; of his pictures, the one most concerned with the mechanics of plot pieces snapping into place. It’s also the most plastic and impersonal picture he’s ever done, similar to watching a once-great rock band on reunion tour appearing as a cover band of itself.


Wildly underrated Scorsese picture: Shutter Island, which shares with “Life Lessons” a kind of romantic frenzy and visual expressionism, albeit of a different stylistic and emotive key. (In “Life Lessons,” the sexual obsession fuels the artist’s painting; in Shutter Island, the attempt to move past or reconceptualize the fallout of a romantic tragedy dooms the hero to insanity, a kind of eternal return. Even critics who praised Shutter Island extolled it for the wrong things—the Hitchcock tics and ‘50s soundstage-like stylization. It’s a singularly strange, bruising experience, and might be the Scorsese film most ripe for rediscovery.)


Neat piece of Big Apple boosterism in a film that is, after all, titled New York Stories:

“It’s an expensive city,” complains a Dobie admirer.

“It’s the only city,” he answers.


Perfect visual detail: Dobie using a tin garbage can lid for a paint palette.


Related to the above, the scenes of Dobie painting—the lights very hot and bright on the acrylics in close-up, wet on wet—couldn’t be more sensual or exciting. They’re the purest sex scenes Scorsese’s ever done.


The hot Latin stud Arquette picks up at the party is played by Jesse Borrego, one of the kids from the TV show Fame. If this striking actor is reduced to playing a stereotype, he’s still treated to a terrific moment with Nolte the morning after. Dobie—tormenting himself over losing his girl to the younger and more attractive man, hand spasming as he pours himself a cup of coffee following an all-nighter spent warring with his canvases—is approached by the open-shirted, leather pants-wearing lady-killer, who, with a self-satisfied yawn, informs the older man that he’s “dead and buried” following his exertions in Paulette’s bedroom. After dismissing him with a brutal put-down (“You a graffiti artist?” he mumbles), Dobie picks up the brushes and rouses himself again. “You just fucked my girl,” the smile he beams toward the younger man says, “and you’re 30 years younger and 40 pounds lighter than me, but I have more talent, more smarts, more depth of human feeling in my pinky than you’ll ever know.”


Several times throughout the picture, Scorsese uses a technique knows as an iris shot, in which the frame is either gradually blacked out or widens open into a circle to draw attention to a detail in the frame or dramatically underline a moment between characters without resorting to a cut, close-up, or camera movement. It’s a lovely, antiquated technique, a holdover from silent cinema, and a device the director would use again a few years later in The Age of Innocence.


A longish note on that picture, the only literary adaptation in Scorsese’s oeuvre. The director described his take on Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as, “the most violent film [he’d] ever made,” and convincingly suggested comparisons between the ritualistic qualities of his mob pictures and the kind of closed, tribal strictures deployed by New York City’s high society of the late 1800s. Indeed, there are extreme close-ups of pens and cigar cutters in The Age of Innocence that are as frightening as the hammers, baseball bats, and cleavers doing their business in Goodfellas and Casino. For all its emotional tumult, it’s a gorgeous film—at once rueful and tough-minded about regret and lost chances—and, coming at the height of Merchant-Ivory’s dominance of the prestige picture—it’s also a passionate and original take on the costume movie. The film has its detractors—some felt Winona Ryder miscast (though I think she’s wonderful here), and the voiceover narration feels like a concession (though I’d pay to hear Joanne Woodward read the entire book on tape), but Daniel Day-Lewis, using what sounds like something close to his normal speaking voice, is exceedingly gentle and precise as Newland Archer—a dream of a romantic hero—and Michelle Pfeiffer, at the height of her tremulous beauty, gives the major performance of her career. Indeed, Pfeiffer is so good here—displaying such a mixture of worldliness and vulnerability—one mourns the career she didn’t have, the roles that didn’t materialize, the actress-director partnerships that never were but might have tested the limits of her talent.


The great film writer Richard Brody made an astute observation recently on the New Yorker’s blog: that every film, even big CGI action spectacles like Transformers 4, is rich in documentary aspects, insofar as we’re watching performers as they exist at  specific moment in time and, how, even if a film isn’t set in the present, a viewer will usually absorb certain contemporary styles of speech, dress, and gesture. Apart from many other things, “Life Lessons” gets its cultural moment—Soho in the late 1980s—exactly right. This is an analogue era of clunky phones and art happenings and rain-soaked cobblestone streets. It’s also a time that seems infinitely more vibrant, alive, funky, and open to possibility than our own.


Related to the above, Dobie’s loft is big enough for a basketball hoop to seem neither pretentious nor ridiculously out of place.


Yes, that’s Peter Gabriel, Willem Dafoe, and Debbie Harry making cameos in the performance art scene. Cool, cool, cool…


Perfect art world detail: during the party scene Dobie pulls Paulette into a bathroom to warn her that the man with whom she’s flirting is a shark on the make. The dialogue between them is conducted through a mirror, the frame of which is made of hundreds of iridescent-colored toothbrushes.


If you look closely at the complex series of shot-countershots in the scene referenced above—with one actor in the foreground, the other reflected in the mirror, and the actors seeming to face each other—you realize that the sight-lines are physically impossible and that Nolte and Arquette must have performed the scene facing away from each other, talking past each other.


Dobie, for all of his bluster and jive, does have a kind of cockeyed integrity. Twice in the picture Paulette asks him if she’s got the stuff to be a real artist, if she’ll ever be any good. The only thing certain to land Dobie back in his mistress’s bed is praising the girl’s work, taking her seriously as an artist. She knows it and he knows it. And he can’t do it. An emotional vampire, a master manipulator (of himself and others), the great man can’t help but be honest about the work. He recognizes Paulette as a dilettante—someone who responds more passionately to the idea of being an artist than one compelled to create as a necessary stratagem for living—and can’t force himself to say otherwise. “You make art because you have to, because you’ve got no choice,” he says during perhaps his most self-revealing moment. “It’s not about talent, it’s about no choice but to do it. If you can just give it up you were never a real artist in the first place.” The most he’ll give her when she presses him for an opinion of her stuff is: “It’s not boring.”


After this conversation, knowing he blew it with the girl, Dobie retreats to his workspace, cursing himself, and takes up the brushes. Paulette follows him out the room, yelling at Dobie to turn the music down. But it’s too late, by then Dobie is already in mid-possession, demonically absorbed in the work, the girl and her concerns drowned out by the music and the artist’s physical and emotional concentration. We see the best of this holy fool in this moment, Paulette does, too, and it’s one of the most furious and gorgeous sequences Scorsese has ever recorded. The cross-cutting here between Nolte jumping around the epic-sized canvas, close-ups of the real painter’s hand working the brushes, and shots dollying in on Rosanna Arquette—her face betraying that for all of her exasperation with him she recognizes Dobie as the thing itself, that she’s witnessing genius in action, that this is the best of a very flawed man, and she’s privileged to get this seat at the carnival—all unified by Bob Dylan and the Band’s titanic version of “Like a Rolling Stone” from Before the Flood (the live double album they recorded in 1974)—makes for an ecstatic sequence. It’s a master class in film editing, as cohesive and emotionally spiky as any of the fight scenes in Raging Bull.


A word about that carnivalesque version of “Like a Rolling Stone.” A recording made during the reunion tour Dylan and the Band took up eight years after the singer emerged from reclusion following his motorcycle accident, this is, in my opinion, the supreme version of Dylan’s greatest song (and six minutes that puts the lie to all the haters who say Bob can’t sing). Never the world’s warmest live performer, Dylan welcomed audiences to these return concerts with “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” roaring the song’s opening line like he was Lex Luthor hurling a rock of kryptonite at Superman’s head: “You say you love me/and you’re thinking of me/but you know you could be wronggggggggggg!


Though Scorsese always seemed more of a Stones man than a Dylan man (is it three pictures, four, that do the montage to “Gimme Shelter”?), there’s still a strong and fascinating Zimmerman current running through his work. To wit: (1) The magnificent concert film, The Last Waltz, which climaxes with an appearance by Dylan in his Rolling Thunder-era traveling troubadour incarnation, trailing flowers, feathers, and plumes; (2) Scorsese’s rich and longstanding artistic collaboration with the Band’s Robbie Robertson; and (3) The probing documentary, No Direction Home, a kind of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man self-creation myth and story of exile, a work that continually circles back to the Rosetta Stone of Dylanology—the mid-sixties electric shows with the Hawks across England.


Scorsese has always been wizardly with music, but has he ever made better use of a popular song than how he deploys Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” here?


Related musical note: It’s 1989. Dude is playing cassette tapes on a boom box.


Also on the picture’s soundtrack: “Politican” by Cream, “(Night Time Is) The Right Time” by Ray Charles, and the opera aria “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, with which Dobie torments himself while Paulette entertains her one-night stand upstairs.


Paulette is not the artist that Dobie is—and at the beginning of the picture the older man viciously predicts the girl’s staid trajectory (that she’ll return home to a square suburban life). But if Paulette’s greatest sin is that she’s unformed (one of the reasons why Arquette’s smeary sexuality makes her so well-cast here), she’s also no dummy. She knows her worth with men, and she’s onto him. Even when complimenting herself for being in the company of this genius-monster, and enjoying the perks of being given entrée into New York’s upper echelon art scene, she recognizes his emotional stratagems and stunts. And she’s wised-up enough to call Dobie’s bluff at the end: “Love me? You just need me around… Sometimes I feel like a human sacrifice!”


The film is so gorgeous, it elevates the work of Chuck Connelly, the real-life artist whose work it features. Soon after “Life Lessons” came out, there was a gallery show of the artist’s work. The exhibition’s centerpiece, “Bridge to Nowhere,” the monumental canvas that Dobie wrestles with throughout the course of the film looked pinched and diminished lifted from its filmic frame.


There’s a great shot Scorsese uses where the camera takes up the position of the canvas. Nolte faces us down, considering the canvas like an opponent, cocking his head to one side or the other, and keeps thrusting in with the brush, attacking us, teasing out weaknesses and pressure points, bobbing and weaving, coming in and retreating like a boxer.


Per the above, camera moves in Scorsese are like musical numbers in Sondheim: they tell us everything we need to know about character psychology. In the end it’s no surprise that Paulette leaves Dobie. But a flitting series of shots in the film’s final scene across another young woman’s body—lips, hands, neck, ear, décolletage—tells us all we need to now about this artist’s working life, what he needs to fuel his inspiration, and what’s coming next.


A word on the character’s name. Dobie sounds like a breed of dog, or a rare jewel, or an expensive chocolate dessert, or a lousy mood. (“I don’t know, I’m just feeling a little bit Dobie today.”) Like William Gaddis’s “chavenet” in The Recognitions, it’s a word that could serve as noun, adjective, or verb. I love Dobie’s name so much, I christened a supporting character in my book after him.


You can’t write a perfect novel or make a perfect feature. The forms are too big, too expansive, too unwieldy, too (gloriously) open to tangent and digression. In its wit, lightness, compression, and easy mastery, “Life Lessons” might be Scorsese’s most perfect film. Watch it!


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