An In-Depth Analysis by Étienne Sheehy
Life Lessons (1989), directed by Martin Scorsese, is a short movie within the anthology movie New York Stories (“New York Stories” 1) about an unstable and emotional painter Lionel Dobie who lives in a New York studio with his assistant Paulette, a struggling artist, who hesitates to leave New York. To illustrate Lionel’s complex character and demonstrate his emotions and inner-conflict, Scorsese uses many stylistic and expressionistic elements through the whole movie such as camerawork, editing, production design, and music.
Camerawork and Editing
This movie’s camera and editing almost have personalities of their own with their constant presence being felt during the whole movie whether through pans, fast zooms, jump-cuts, dissolves, iris shots, etc. In fact, these two elements combined are used in many scenes to convey Lionel’s emotions and thoughts to the audience and make us understand his values, desires and inner conflicts.
At the beginning of the movie, the camera and editing indicate to us Lionel’s personality and his inner desires. In the opening shots we get multiple close-ups on various objects such as paint, brushes, and whiskey, and then the camera moves around and tracks Lionel who is pacing. Just with those shots we already understand that Lionel is an eccentric painter lacking inspiration who is now stuck and unable to start working on his new painting. Later on, at 3min 06s, Lionel is at the airport to go get his assistant called Paulette. When she arrives, the movie is in slow- motion and there are cross-cuts in between a low angle close-up shot of Lionel smoking and a shot of the airport gates. Then, Paulette arrives and we see her appear slowly in slow-motion through an iris-out transition that starts right on her face as the song in the background says “her face”. Thus, through the camera and editing we can already deduce that Lionel is completely enamored and finds Paulette very beautiful; however, we are still unsure what really is the relationship between the two characters which will soon be shown in the next few scenes after the opening title at 6min 17s.
So, Paulette at Lionel’s studio gets ready to leave for good, but then Lionel goes to her room to convince her to stay and she accepts only if they don’t sleep together anymore implying they did before. In this scene, we see a close-up cut-in shot of Paulette’s underwear at 7min 59s, a reaction shot of Lionel afterwards and another quick close-up of the underwear. Also, a little later at 11min 13s there is an iris-out shot which started by focusing on Paulette’s foot, and then a dissolve into a close-up of the foot. The shots are from Lionel’s point of view and make us understand that Lionel has strong sexual desires and urges and is definitely in inner conflict since Paulette said that they won’t be sleeping together anymore. This is further confirmed in a sequence at 14min when Lionel and Paulette are naked and hugging in blue lighting representing Lionel’s fantasy and sexual desires. Furthermore, we are able to understand how Lionel’s desires affect his painting through the camera; suddenly at 12min while Lionel paints there are truck shots, then we see a cut-in of a porn magazine, and then we see many close-up shots at different angles of the painting. The camerawork and editing illustrate how Lionel’s lust inspires him to paint. All of these different examples I named allow us to understand Lionel’s character and flaws, and explain some of his strange behaviour such as randomly entering Paulette’s room while she is sleeping at 12min52s. In fact, we can deduce thanks to the camerawork and editing that Lionel probably hired Paulette not to develop her talent as an artist but to satisfy his own sexual desires and to create emotions of lust and love in order to paint. Lionel used his influence, artistic entourage, money and power to make sure Paulette accepts to live and even sleep with him.
We now arrive at the middle section of the movie where the camera and editing still continue to emphasize Lionel’s emotions that vary from lust, to jealousy, to anger and to possessiveness because Paulette sleeps with the painter Reuben Toro and meets up with her ex, the performance artist, Gregory Stark. For example, at 25min 20s, the movie takes a long moment to show a medium arc shot allowing us to see Lionel’s face and then slowly his back as he looks at Paulette’s room where Paulette and Reuben are. This shot expresses Lionel’s sadness, possessiveness and jealousy; even though Paulette clearly said she doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to sleep with him, Lionel stares at her room as if she was cheating on him. Afterwards comes one of the best shots of the movie at 26min30s when Lionel is on a chair, shirtless, sad and dirty and there is a push-in going from a long-shot to a close-up shot with a slightly high angle which shows Lionel’s sadness and weakness. Then, the camera stays still for a long moment so we can truly look at Lionel’s face and after the camera tracks him from the front as he stands up, walks and stares again at the room. This shot shows Lionel’s obsession and strong envy which he needs to vent off by painting, but it also shows how miserable, desperate and sad he actually is. Some other important shots are the many long-shots from Paulette’s point of view where we see Lionel staring at a distance like at the restaurant at 37min 46s which illustrate Lionel’s very creepy possessive obsessive side and how wrong and disturbing the situation with Paulette is.
Finally, at the end of the movie Paulette makes the definitive choice of leaving New York after Lionel attacks George Stark. Also, we get a glimpse that Lionel is self-conscious of his faults while he is arguing with Paulette saying that he needs to indulge in love to paint and that he is selfish at 40min 20s; so, after that, will he change and stop being so selfish? Well, at the end of the movie, the camera and editing clearly tell us no, Lionel is still the same and continues his toxic and unhealthy way of doing art because that art makes him famous and powerful. We see this because when he talks to the young woman towards the end at 44min 13s we get a close-up of the woman’s lips, eyes, hands, etc. immediately after a zoom shot of Lionel’s face. We can thus guess that the camera was Lionel’s point of view and thus we see that his sexual desires and urges are still present. In fact, he takes her on as an assistant not because of her art, but because of his lust and need for “love” to paint. The movie ends with an iris-in shot focusing on Lionel and the young woman indicating that Lionel is repeating what he did with Paulette and that he will create probably another toxic and unhealthy relationship caused by his desires, pride and power. The camera and editing shows that Lionel didn’t change and didn’t learn his lesson from Paulette, and thus ironically, he says he gives life lessons, but he refuses himself to change and learn. This contrasts with Paulette who at the end confronted Lionel and left him which clearly was the right thing to do; she realized that Lionel is dangerous, possessive, a bad teacher and not worth all the fame and influence.
The camerawork and editing are important; however, some elements of production design also help with characterizing Lionel and showing his emotions, values and character traits. One of the most important element of production design which does that is definitely the grand painting done by Lionel through the movie. As Lionel experiences lust, envy, anger and anxiety, he is able to paint and put all of these emotions into one single canvas which can be seen completed at 43min 7s. The painting thus symbolizes these negative emotions which come from his unhealthy relationship with Paulette; so, in a way that painting is Lionel’s darker side. In fact, the painting looks pretty menacing and imposing, is messy, and we can clearly see the different strokes of different colors applied onto the painting. This illustrates Lionel’s emotional, unstable and rash personality. Also, the painting is very dark and grim showing how the painting was made with negative emotions such as envy and anger. Finally, a very dominant color of the painting is red: “red is romantic love, and its physical passion. Red is violence, anger, and aggression, and it frequently indicates danger” (Smith 1). Lionel while painting truly had the emotions associated with red such as love, lust, passion, and anger; red was thus cleverly chosen and used to symbolize those emotions; imagine if the painting was delicately made and calm blue instead!
Other important elements of production designs which helps characterize Lionel are sets and costumes. For example, one very important set is Lionel’s studio where, as we see in the first shots of the movie, there is whiskey lying around, paint on the ground, and paint on the walls; the studio is messy and it illustrates Lionel’s more artistic but also unstable and emotional side. Moreover, this is further emphasized with the fact that most of the time in his studio, Lionel is dirty, sweaty, and full of paint like at 13min35s or at 27min. This heavily contrasts with how he shows himself at public events in a nice clean suit with his hair all well done. Also, the set of the studio contrasts with the fancy art gallery at the end of the movie where his painting is presented. These contrasts represent the contrast between Lionel’s public appearance as a talented, powerful, rich and nice painter, and what he actually is like: very unstable, jealous, angry and possessive. In fact, at the art gallery Lionel’s actual personality was shown through his painting.
The music consists of popular songs of the1960’s and is mostly diegetic since the music is normally chosen by Lionel himself and played in his studio while he paints. In fact, most of these songs played in his studio reflect his inner emotions and character. The song played at the beginning and at the end of the movie which is also probably the most important and recurring one is “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum. The song has a melancholic romantic feel to it which fits well with Lionel’s sad and desperate romantic emotions towards Paulette who doesn’t love him and doesn’t want to sleep with him; the song may represent Lionel’s inner desire and melancholy. Also, the song seems to have a sexual connotation with lyrics such as at 6min 39s: “And would not let her be one of 16 vestal virgins.” This can be related to Lionel’s inner lust and sexual desires he has for Paulette, but also for the young woman he met towards the end thus explaining why the song was also played at the very end. So, this song represents Lionel’s lust and melancholy. Another example of music used to portray Lionel’s character is at 26min 40s when Lionel is thinking about Paulette and Reuben being in the room above together and he is just sitting on a chair listening to the opera song “Nessum Dorma” by Puccini which is extremely dramatic, sad, melancholic and emotional. The song perfectly accompanies Lionel’s envy and sadness in that scene. Finally, another example is at 41min when, after Paulette decides to leave and then Lionel decides to paint to vent off his anger, we hear the song: “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan which is very upbeat and dynamic and perfectly goes with Lionel’s feeling of rage and anger.
Symbolism of Names and Conclusion
A final little detail I want to talk about his how Lionel’s name is also part of his characterization. In fact, his name comes from “lion” and lions normally are symbols of pride (Clifford 1) which directly contrast with Paulette’s name which comes from Paulus meaning “humble” (“Paulette: Given Name” 1). Lionel is proud of his work and his art; he considers it sacred and he goes as far down as he can to complete it even if it harms others, for example, Paulette. Ultimately, Lionel is too prideful and doesn’t change at the end of the movie by hiring another assistant mainly for sexual reasons. This contrasts with Paulette who is very humble and thinks her art is extremely bad; however, unlike Lionel she manages to change and realize that leaving New York is necessary for her safety and mental health.
In conclusion, Life Lessons truly gives an important lesson on how different elements such as music, camera movement, editing, costumes, and props can all contribute to creating a complex character such as Lionel and make the audience understand this character’s values and personality in a more profound and complete way.
Clifford, Garth C. “Lion Symbolism & Meaning.” World Birds, https://www.worldbirds.org/lion-symbolism/. Accessed 6 May 2021.
“New York Stories.” Wikipedia, 5 May 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_Stories. Accessed 6 May 2021.
“Paulette: Given Name.” Wikipedia, 24 September 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulette_(given_name)#:~:text=Paulette%20(po%2DLET)%20is,comes%20from%20the%20same%20cognate. Accessed 6 May 2021.
Smith, Kate. “Color Symbolism and Meaning of Red.” Sensational Color, https://www.sensationalcolor.com/meaning-of-red/. Accessed 6 May 2021.