MOVIE ARTISTS – Life Lessons

Awhile back, I worked on a feature film about a guy who discovers his inner artist.* His medium of choice is sculpture, but his ‘love interest’ is an aspiring painter. While preparing to shoot a scene in her apartment, I cringed watching the props guy place new paint brushes and new tubes of paint beside a store bought palette. That’s bad movie-making, folks.**

The intersection of film and visual arts is a constant source of interest to me, and in the spirit of the film awards season that is upon us, I thought I would take a moment to give some props (of a different, much higher quality) to the people who got it right, and by ‘it’, I mean the portrayal of artists in film. And I’m not talking about bio-pics here*** I’m talking about characters in films who happen to be visual artists, such as…

Nick Nolte as painter Lionel Dobie in New York Stories

The classic ‘Lion’- Nick Nolte’s character in Martin Scorcese’s segment of New York Stories, a film from 1989 that is really 3 short films bundled together. Scorcese’s contribution is called Life Lessons and was written by Richard Price.

In the best movies with artist characters, a real artist’s work is used and Life Lessons is no exception. Nolte plays Lionel Dobie (‘The Lion’), a big-shot painter, and his work is played by the paintings of Chuck Connelly.

Detail of Connelly's 'Bridge to Nowhere' (1998), featured in Life Lessons as the main painting Nick Nolte's character works on.

Connelly is an American artist who rose to prominence in the 1980s alongside folks like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel.****    It seems Connelly then pissed a bunch of people off, effectively sabotaging his career, although he still paints and exhibits, and is now based out of Philadelphia.

Connelly’s work has a fantastic, expressive quality and Nolte has the energy and body language to make us believe he’s the one painting it. Much like films about musicians that are watched with scorn by real musicians if the actor can’t sell the idea that they can actually play/sing/whatever, the first point Life Lessons scores is that the painting sequences feel real.

The studio Lionel Dobie works in is also believable, if a bit on the big side, but it works given the fact that he’s supposed to be a huge success, and serves to fuel the fantasies of every painter watching who works out of a closet. (Which is really what film is for, non?)

What Scorcese and company really get right, though, is the details… the progression of a painting in progress, the garbage can lid for a palette (a fun touch admired by many painters I’ve known), and the paint-smeared tape deck, clothes, face, and well, everything really.

As a bonus, the film also contains this beaut of a painting-reference line; Nolte says to his former lover (played by Rosanna Arquette) in an attempt to win her back that ‘he loves her, he’d do anything for her-   he’d stretch canvas for her‘!

Awesome. And that pretty much sums up the appeal of Life Lessons; it’s a little clichéd and cheesy, but it’s got some fun painterly touches, and of course, wonderfully stylish Scorcese/Schoonmaker shots and edits.

* I worked on the film as an AD

** that props guy was later fired for an assortment of props-related offenses

*** maybe I’ll get to those a little later

**** Schnabel is now one of my favorite directors. Check out Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly if you haven’t already… fantastic filmmaking.

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