Thursday, September 25, 2014

Life Lessons; A German Expressionistic Touch

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! 

* * * 


Kelly, Mary Pat. Martin Scorses A Journey. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press. Print. 


  1. I really dug the approach to this analysis. You were able to take your knowledge on german expressionism in film and apply it to Life Lessons. There is clearly a ton of german expressionistic elements in the piece, as you pointed out, that range from lighting to shots to music, etc. The majority of your analysis is covering shots, however, and you really do break down the theory and usage behind several of them. Overall, great post. -WCO

  2. I really appreciated the bridge that you drew between the german expressionistic elements that were included in Life Lessons and how they functioned within the film. The tone of this post is also very welcoming and personal and it was rather refreshing to read because your passion for this subject was evident. I really enjoyed how you touched upon the theatrical elements that were present within this piece, not only with the shot design but with the dramatic lighting that aided in the overall effect. Awesome job!

  3. CLARIFY: Very clear what your central idea was - you trying to prove the idea that Life Lessons uses similar elements of German Expressionism throughout the film.

    VALUE: Wow, impressed with your central idea and that you took this approach to analyzing the film. I absolutely agree that Scorsese uses expressionist techniques to explore Dobie's story and the mind of this artist. You have several specific elements that you bring up with examples to back up your ideas. I really commend you for including images from the film that directly relate to your examples too - that' utilizing the medium that you are writing in! With most of your examples you also take the time to fully describe them and explain how they relate to your point.

    CONCERNS: I think it would be helpful for you to give a definition of some of the terms you use, especially Expressionism (as it relates to the art form of film) and things like the Iris effect. It's a little confusing even to me as you say "iris camera movements" - but it's not really a camera movement, it's an effect to the lens/image for sure and it does create movement kind of like a zoom in, but we aren't actually moving the camera. I think you could also go deeper into the example of while Dobie is painting and Paulette watches - really in depth analysis would actually describe shot by shot at least part of the sequence, or at least give a few more details. I'm being kind of picky about this because it's a really strong post.

    SUGGEST: Be careful of your formatting - it just looks a little all over the place. I'd also suggest in future you include a brief synopsis of the film to help anyone who hasn't seen it follow your post.