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What I Learned from Martin Scorsese’s ‘Life Lessons’

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Two years before Martin Scorsese cast Nick Nolte as the protagonist of his ambitious Cape Fear remake, he chose the actor for the leading role in Life Lessons (the director’s 40-minute contribution to the 1989 anthology film New York Stories). The first in a trio of featurettes rounded out by Francis Ford Coppola’s Life without Zoe and Woody Allen’s Oedipus Wrecks, Life Lessons finds within Nolte the capacity for reinterpreting a stock character. Scorsese would later challenge the actor to apply a similar process of reinvention in Cape Fear (1991), which the director reportedly wrote off initially in a conversation with his friend Steven Spielberg. At first, Scorsese claimed that he couldn’t expand on the Manichean morality of the 1962 original. Upon Spielberg’s argument that Scorsese could easily shape the project to satisfy his own vision, however, the director reinterpreted Cape Fear’s straightforward ethics, and called Nolte to drastically reinterpret the consummate American “family man” originally typified by Gregory Peck.

Life Lessons similarly calls Nolte to offer a novel perspective into an archetypal figure: this time, that of the tortured, hyper-masculine and hopelessly romantic artist. Playing Lionel Dobie, an action painter who emotionally abuses and manipulates a potentially endless cycle of young women, Nolte channels the character’s fixation on dominance and power above all else. It’s striking how much this sensitive figure’s possessiveness begins to resemble that of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980) or Sam Rothstein in Casino (1995). And it is possessiveness that figures into the performance above all else: one scene finds Dobie confronting his young ex-girlfriend Paulette (Rosanna Arquette) in the kitchen and telling her that since he cannot “have her,” he could just as easily rape her, kill her or kill himself. It’s fitting that Paulette acerbically suggests that he also might as well “rape himself,” cutting straight to the brutally masculinist source of his toxic mentality.

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Scorsese underscores Nolte’s performance with his trademark evocation of point-of-view, foregrounding Dobie’s obsession with the repetition of music cues (in particular, Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” provides an elegiac heartbeat that first sounds melancholy, and then eerie, before eventually developing an implication that’s almost frightening). Also fascinating is the way in which Scorsese’s film subtly calls attention to the parallels between the creative mind on camera, and the creative eye behind. Specifically, the film repeatedly makes use of manipulated and emphasized apertures, frequently framing points of emphasis within the scene (at one point, the image closes save for a circle of focus around Paulette’s foot, openly fetishized by Dobie).

It is this coyly meta aspect that prevents the film from blunt judgment (a trap that Scorsese, in spite of his filmography’s profoundly moralistic through-line, always manages to avoid). Certainly, the meta element most obviously calls attention to the ways in which Dobie is himself playing into a culturally prescribed archetype, whether or not he is fully aware of it. This reading is validated perhaps nowhere better than by the moment that finds Dobie glancing up at Paulette’s bedroom while she has sex with another man, and smiling knowingly to himself rather than breaking into hysterics or exposing his anger. His masculine excess is largely performative, and he is able to appreciate its fictitiousness, for a moment, without an audience. Also worth noting is that the film’s meta characteristics allow it to recognize its own complicity in narrative perpetuation, even potentially gesturing to ways in which the filmmaker relates to the subject.

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To that end, it’s interesting that Scorsese so often subverts the problematically objectified blonde women of Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre (commonly referred to as the “Hitchcock blondes”); in Life Lessons, Arquette’s genuinely complex characterization serves as one example among many — consider also Cybill Shepherd in Taxi Driver, Cathy Moriarty in Raging Bull, Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence (1993), Sharon Stone in Casino, Cameron Diaz in Gangs of New York (2002), Cate Blanchett in The Aviator (2004), Vera Farmiga in The Departed (2006) and Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). All of these women are perceived to varying degrees as objects to be desired and controlled by their respective films’ male protagonists, and all of them pit themselves against those controlling men in a complicated variety of ways. This thread marks a seemingly conscious reaction to the sexism of Hitchcock’s work and encourages further study. Considering Life Lessons as a potentially meta exploration of tortured masculine creativity, then, I think also of the ways in which the featurette anticipates Abel Ferrara’s Dangerous Game (1993), a formally radical and more tonally merciless work from an American auteur whose output often welcomes comparisons to Scorsese’s.

In any event, Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons benefits more from analysis as a self-standing artistic expression than as a counterpoint to the other installments of New York Stories. Coppola’s contribution shows its director in a playful mood, presenting an essentially frothy trifle for children, while Allen’s offering finds its writer-actor-director conducting yet another expression of his career-long Freudian self-analysis under the guise of comedy. Life Lessons, through its exuberant action painting sequences and painstaking depiction of the tortured artist as masculinist performance, plays best in the context of Scorsese’s filmography. For many fans of the director, The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” (featured in GoodFellas, Casino and The Departed) acts as a kind of auteurist anthem. After watching Life Lessons, it’ll be difficult for me to forget Nolte’s rattled performance whenever I hear “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” The film might be less than half the length of many Scorsese masterpieces, but it makes no bargains on impact.

Mike Thorn (@MikeThornWrites) is a lifelong cinema enthusiast pursuing his M.A. in English literature at the University of Calgary. His fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including DarkFuse, Double Feature Magazine, Turn to Ash and the anthology Creepy Campfire Stories (for Grownups). He has also written numerous articles for Bright Lights Film Journal. You can contact him through his website, mikethornwrites.com.

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