Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Dobie Needs Space

In Martin Scorsese's Life Lessons, a successful painter named Lionel Dobie struggles with completing pieces for his upcoming gallery opening, and retaining a relationship with his muse and past lover, Paulette Just Paulette. They're on again, off again fighting and love/hatred for each other fuels Lionel's work and drives Paulette to leaving him and the art scene in general.

There were almost uncountable uses of cinematic tools to create a beautiful image and environment, but what most stuck out to me was space. The film opens with Lionel painting in his loft, in his natural environment with no distractions so he can focus on the art. His studio is massive with hardly any walls separating it. This is where he feels most like himself. The next scene is Lionel arguing with his dealer, who is stuck in the elevator. The shot design and placement describes the dealer as a animal in a cage, and Lionel as the viewer at the zoo. But there are also shots portraying Lionel as trapped in a cage, referencing his resistance to following deadlines and being told what to do.

We next see Lionel at the airport, waiting for Paulette. An airport is very large and open, but also very crowded. As he and Paulette walk down the halls, the shots are very tight so they constrain them together. He's happy to be with Paulette, and it has a feeling of home. As we move through the film, it is mostly placed in the studio. Paulette's bedroom is on a second story, where Dobie has to climb a flight of stairs to get to her. This resembles Rapunzel, and the humility he faces every time he goes to her room. It's small, and it's her space, he doesn't belong there and he knows it. 

There are other locations Lionel goes to with Paulette. One is an underground railroad where Paulette's old flame is performing. It's dark and creepy, Lionel is out of his element. He is surrounded by young people who are obsessed with an art concept that makes no sense to him. Another environment is one of Lionel's pier's gallery openings. The is the least favorite part of his job; getting dressing up and putting on a fake personality to woo fellow artists and buyers. The space is very claustrophobic, and Lionel feels trapped. When Paulette finally leaves, he's left in his open loft all alone for the first time in a while. The atmosphere feels different and it's much darker, Lionel is alone in his home, with no one to call his muse.

Finally, in his own gallery opening, there is a lot of people, but it also a very open space. Lionel doesn't have to woo anyone, it's everyone else who are doing the wooing. He is in his own space, comfortable and carefree. The way Scorsese uses space is remarkable in this film. Lionel Dobie is his best in his own space, and at his worst in spaces that are closed or small. It's very subtle, but plays a big role in Nick Nolte's performance. Every location and production design was a choice to make sure that Lionel's emotion matched the space he was in.