Everyone knows I'm a massive fan of german expressionistic cinema.
Which makes me a massive fan of Martin Scorses's Life Lessons. I'm telling you now that the elements he took from German Expressionism truly amaze me.
Because who doesn't love a thrilling story told through dramatic lighting, strange & eccentric (yet motivated!) camera angling, heroic characters, enormously theatrical sets, and some fantastically staged wide shots?
Exactly. Everyone's gotta love it. Especially Mr. Scorse, who directed this film in 1989-it was his first work involving an obsessive artist as the protagonist since his early NYU days. Even Nestor Almendros, the cinematographer, claims "Martin's camera is at weird angles, with extreme close-ups followed by faraway shots. Everything is very far-out, very strange. And yet it matches."(Kelly, 251) I couldn't agree more.
Let's take a look at a few ways he incorporates some working German Expressionistic elements in Life Lessons.
First off, the Point-of-View shots in the very first sequence of the film resemble German Expressionism. It downright copies the same moving-in Point-of-View shots in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, into a shot of Dobie's hand reaching for his glass of whisky. This, as well as the other close-ups, work because it clearly portrays the world through the character's eyes. It's a forced perspective. We see everything that Dobie, the protagonist, only sees in his world: His paint, His Brushes, His Canvas, and His Whiskey. Even the scene where after Dobie's assistant, Paulette, calls her mom about wanting to go home, then getting caught up in watching Dobie paint, pictures a forced perspective; it shows what both of the artists only can see: the paint swirling onto the canvas in close-up images.
Secondly, I noticed strong theatrical elements (paralleling to ones in German Expressionism, of course) spread across the film. These components draw us into the story, and give us a "heroic" perspective on the character as well.
For example! Let's take a look a this wide shot (out of MANY) in particular:
Clearly, this harsh contrast lighting resembles theatrical qualities, in that it looks like a spot-light on Dobie with shadows surrounding him. It's him and his painting- and that is his purpose. It almost looks like a halo, as if it is God's light is shining down on Dobie's heroic deed of painting, or maybe Dobie is portrayed as God in the shot. This lighting, in relation to the theme of the film, tells us that for Dobie,"It's about no choice but to do it" (this is what he tells Paulette when critiquing her work).
Also, the strong iris camera movements connect to both dramatic lighting and to the Point-of-View Close-ups because they highlight what Dobie sees and feels like within his world. It's a blunt spot light on objects vital to Dobie: his painting materials, his whiskey, and Paulette's foot (aka her body). These iris shots tie the story as a whole from the beginning to the end.
Lastly, I want to focus on a heroic image of Dobie that engraved itself into my mind. It lies towards the ending of Life Lessons, when Dobie observes Paulette's dark room when she brings her little hook-up buddy, Ruben, from the party scene, into her room.
After Dobie channels his emotions into painting that night, he takes a moment to "[confront] with the terror and awfulness of mortality"(Kelly, 253), by looking at Paulette's loft in a close-up. Scarlet paint strokes, resembling battle wounds, coat his upper body, as the striking "Nessum Dorma" aria blasts in the background. This heroic stance accomplishes itself mainly due to the exaggerated staging and positioning of the camera in the space..
.....which, if you haven't guessed already, can be seen in almost all films in the german expressionistic era that portray a hero. Martin Scorses shapes this dramatic shot into appearing audacious to fully reveal the character's confrontation with his own mortality.
Sooo, to sum this whole extravaganza, Life Lessons most definitely possesses a "German Expressionistic" touch. I haven’t looked at any other Martin Scorses films, but I highly recommend watching this one- it’s fascinating and definitely not one to miss out on.
I chose to touch on only this specific elemts of this film, but Life Lessons proves itself worthy of all kinds of analysis- whether for color (blue vs. red), or intricate shot design- it’s strange, it’s eccentric, and it works.
‘Till next time, friends!
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Kelly, Mary Pat. Martin Scorses A Journey. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press. Print.