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. 


  1. I never noticed this pattern of space! This is an incredibly cool element to contrast- it almost reflects his nature as a wild beast; something that must be out in the open to survive instead of confined in small places. This also reminds me that when Lionel "is out of his element", he seems confronted with his own mortality by seeing the young people.
    I wonder if "Lionel as the viewer at the zoo" perspective can also be switched around. What if the dealer is the viewer looking at Lionel, the beast, behind a cage (and viewers come by to be entertained by his paintings)?

    1. I liked reading your ponderings and questions, Anna. It seems as though Demitri's post really made you think - high praise!

  2. Nice review Demitri! You noticed a lot of things, and I really liked what you wrote. I appreciate how you describe every single cinematic element you are talking about, the pattern also stands out! The cage you're mentioning - now thinks me to think about it and see that it definitely means something.
    I think you could have talked and about other cinematic tools (though there are so many of them) because I see you liked the movie and were able to see things that we not really obvious, but besides that I think a really good job!

  3. Wow it just deleted my comment twice, ya killin me smalls..
    Great job noticing a cinematic tool, explaining why it was used when it was and giving us plenty of examples to prove your point. I totally agree that Scorsese used space to inspire loneliness, claustrophobia, isolation, and obsession in this movie. I think space is one of the most crucial and powerful elements in any art and there is no doubt Scorsese designed the shots this way deliberately, so any old viewer can FEEL a certain way subconsciously. It's always impressive when a filmmaker like yourself digs deep intellectually and can tell us WHY the director made certain choices. I agree with you completely and I'm glad you pointed this out to me. Great use of detail and very nicely written. :)

  4. CLARIFY: It's fairly clear by your second paragraph that you plan to explore the different environments that Lionel inhabits in the film. You could have a stronger actual thesis statement - one has to kind of decode the thesis from your points and examples. The only thing that might confusing is the use of space -as often "space" refers to film space (deep space, flat space, etc). Since this is not what you are covering you may want to define what you mean by "space" a bit more early on.

    VALUE: That being said - what an outstanding post overall. Not only did you pick on element and explored it with several in depth examples, you also included visuals that help to back up your points! That is using the medium of a blog post to its fullest. I think you definitely explore the use of different environments in the film and analyze how those settings reflect aspects of character, story and theme. You are exploring how the settings function in the film - great analysis!

    SUGGESTION: Just be careful of a few typos, and again you could add a clearer thesis that explains up front what you mean by "space."