Tag Archives: art in film

New York Stories (1989) – Life Lessons: Artist and his Muse

24 Jun

I am currently rereading Elizabeth Wurtzel’s memoir “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” and her vivid descriptions of growing up in 1970s and early 1980s New York made me fantasise about the city that inspired so many artists and bands that I love, from Jackson Pollock and Velvet Underground, to Patti Smith, Robert Mapplethorpe, ad Public Enemy. Drawn by the title alone, I decided to watch again the omnibus film “New York Stories” (1989) which consists of three shorter parts, three different little stories, each showing a fragment from the city’s busy life.

Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie

My favourite short film is the first one called “Life Lessons”, directed by Martin Scorsese. I tells a tale of a middle aged painter Lionel Dobie (played by Nick Nolte) and his beautiful blonde twenty-two year old assistant, ex-lover and muse Paulette (played by Rosanna Arquette). At the beginning of the film, Lionel is madly infatuated with Paulette, but she doesn’t want to be his lover anymore, and decides to stay living with him only to gain some artistic advice and direction. It’s killing Lionel to think that she might leave him, and this turmoil is further deepened by the fact that his big show is in three weeks and he doesn’t have inspiration. Lionel begs her to stay, saying: “You stretch canvases, run a few errands, you got your own room, a studio, life lessons that are priceless, plus a salary.” But of course, he isn’t just interested in things being beneficial for her, they both take advantage of each other; Paulette sees Lionel as a way of getting into posh art circles and a way of learning how to paint better, and it’s obvious why Lionel would benefit from having such a hot young chic around his studio.

Although Paulette returns to live with Lionel in the beginning of the film, she admits that she had an affair with a performance artist. She is now heartbroken and homesick, and she feels her life and her art career aren’t going anywhere. Although he is at first angry at this betrayal, Lionel soon starts to feel how this wild range of emotions; anger, jealousy, uncertainty, longings, frustrations, are all fueling his creativity. And this is where the exciting part comes in; Lionel painting on his huge canvases. Although it isn’t stated, I think he would be an abstract Neo-expressionist painter. He is filling the lonely white empty space of his canvases in abstract shapes and swirls, painting in bold colours and impasto layers which seem like it would take them ages to dry. The close-ups on the colour, all bright and tangible, yellow, red, blue, filled me with ecstasy! Watching those scenes made me finally understand why Vincent van Gogh would eat his paint out of a tube. I wanna lick that paint of the canvas when I see it on the film. I wanna touch it, smear it, leave it everywhere. What an ecstasy it must have been then, to see Jackson Pollock paint his masterpieces!?

I love it how whenever Lionel’s frustration reaches its peak; for example when he hears Paulette talking on the phone to someone, presumably some young man, or when he sees her wrapped only in a robe and making herself a cup of tea in the kitchen, so when his jealousy and passion that he has to tame are at their peak, he goes into his industrial looking studio, puts on a cassette, which is covered with paint flakes just as the cassette player is, and the super groovy soundtrack begins… he is standing in front of the canvas while the music plays “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “Like a Rolling Stone”. Like a wild shamanistic process which purges him from negative emotions, frees him from the miseries and translates them into the language of the colour and patterns on the canvas. Here is a video with shots from the film and Rolling Stones’s song “Paint it Black” as a background music. You will see here the shots of him painting and you will understand quite well what I am talking about here, it’s something that you just gotta see.

The story was loosely inspired by Dostoevsky’s tale “White Nights” first published in 1848. In the story a nameless narrator is telling us about his lonely life in Saint Petersburg and his encounter with a pretty young girl whose lover had abandoned her. He is a dreamer, and she is naive and heartbroken. They befriend, but in the end the girl’s lover returns and she goes with him, leaving the narrator’s hopes for love broken. The story ends with the narrator getting a letter from the girl who is informing him that she is getting married. He is devastated by this news, but remains happy that at least he had a a few moments of bliss and companionship in his lonely miserable life. One can see the connection between Dostoevsky’s story and “Life Lessons” but I think the nameless narrator and Lionel are totally different men; while the narrator’s spirit is broken and he is devastated when she leaves him, Lionel needs a younger woman to inspire him, but he can get a new one any time, it isn’t about Paulette, it is the whole cycle of possessiveness, jealousy, passion and unrequited element of his love affairs which fuels his creativity and ultimately inspires his chaotic art.

In the end, here is Paulette, who is an aspiring artist, with her painting which I quite like! The two figures look like they belong to some other world, the paler one is taking the other by the hand and perhaps leading it to some better place, like Orpheus taking the Euridice from the underworld… and ultimately failing.

I also want to share with you the words that Lionel told to Paulette when she questioned him whether she is any good at painting. He had little comment on her paintings after she showed them to him and so she asked him:

“Tell me if I have any talent or if you think I’m just wasting my time. Because sometimes I feel I should just quit… because… Just tell me what you think.”

And he tells her something which I think all struggling artists should hear: “What the hell difference does it make what I think. It’s yours. I mean, you make art because you have to, ’cause you got no choice. It’s not about talent, it’s about no choice but to do it. Are you any good? Well, you’re 22, so who knows? Who cares? You wanna give it up? You give it up and you weren’t a real artist to begin with.”

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