“It’s art. You give up, you were never an artist in the first place.” – Lionel
One of Martin Scorsese’s most raging, hormonal, triumphant achievements is without a doubt Life Lessons (1989) with Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie. Wait – you’re a Scorsese fan and you’ve never heard of it? Actually it is a short film segment in the anthology film “New York Stories,” with two entries by Francis Ford Coppola and W00dy Allen too mediocre to be worth discussion. But the Scorsese film is undervalued, and worthy of his career highlights.
Just like Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull,” Scorsese’s protagonist Lionel is a madly possessive man anxious over his own feelings of sexual inadequacy. But he trumps up his self-importance to masquerade his own doubts. He blasts rock ‘n’ roll while he’s working, or thinking. The particular favorite is Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” thus, the theme song. I forever associate that song now on the radio to this film when I hear it.
It’s true that every few years I play “Life Lessons”and find something new. It became more apparent, with an illuminated importance, that the crucial detail of the film is that Lionel pays to have a live-in girlfriend. The vainglorious artist first titles this woman as his assistant, but always, there gestates expectation for more. Paulette (Rosanna Arquette) has made him swear that sex is over between them, but Lionel insists that she remains there. She is a protégé artist herself, and stays for the career guidance.
Lionel gives his reasons, but really, he can’t seem to paint without a breathing human being in his high-priced studio loft. He needs the noise and aggravation of another human to motivate him. Now that she has moved back in, he can work on his gigantic canvas that begins with pencil etching. At first it doesn’t even appear to be a good art piece, but I’ve always been in awe in the process of creative art how something meager can transform. The painting gets better and better as he colors it in and adds distinctive details – a masterwork painting comes to life.
When Paulette is too quiet Lionel goes to her upstairs bedroom to bug her, to snoop. He doesn’t call it snooping, he calls it concern. Yet he drops in hints that he wants to reignite the passion between them. Paulette has other romantic interests, including a young performance artist (Steve Buscemi) who is also in his own way self-absorbed. Lionel is fueled by this inchoate competition, and eventually they meet. At the art exhibits it is conveyed that Lionel is a beloved world class artist. Yet he is willing to cave into self-humiliation to win this unattainable assistant, one who is temporary, drama-starved, and emotionally selfish anyway.
Lionel becomes a case study of a man who goes through way too much trouble for superficial love. Nolte, shrouded in a shaggy beard, speckled by art paint, and pitifully groveling, is transformed into this role in the way DeNiro did with “Raging Bull.” With Lionel, however, he pays for girls to be an assistant, a muse, and likely sexpot. They cannot be whores, because to him it is consensual. He offers life lessons that are “priceless,” he says as a lure. His ideas are meant to have worldly sophistication. We see him in the way he doesn’t see himself. An old man getting older.
As for “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” for me, I think the song means something differently than it probably means to Lionel. I increasingly feel with repeat viewings that Lionel doesn’t see himself very clearly.
45 Minutes (“Life Lessons”). 130 Minutes (Entire “New York Stories). Rated PG.
Film Cousins: “New York, New York” (1977); “Raging Bull” (1980); “After Hours” (1985); “Personal Velocity” (2002).