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Life Lessons

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Life Lessons is a powerful film.

First, it’s a Martin Scorsese film, and who doesn’t love Marty?

Second, it’s an eighties film (1989), the best era for film.

It is also a provocative film about a middle-age painter and his young, discontented girlfriend, Paulette. From the very first scene we rarely get the feeling that there is anything still and contented in the soul of our hero, Lionel.

He is verbally clever but emotionally uncertain. It is not a story of love. It is a story of power and discontentment.


Here is a shot-by-shot analysis of the second chapter the best reveal the nature of Lionel.

 Shot 1

I. Mise-en-scene

A. Setting: Onset in Lionel’s studio apartment.

1. Props: cassette, cassette player with paint stains, and some pieces of                                            plastic are missing, suggesting the tape player is well-used and old.

B. Lighting:

1. Ration: low ratio/high-key lighting.

2. Quality: soft, less detail.

3. Direction: There is an overall illumination of the cassette player, as a result it is difficult to discern the exact location of light, however, we can assume a standard 45 degrees, considering there is no specific effect created on the cassette.

C. Costume: Only evidence of main character is his hands, which have long, dirty                                                 fingernails.

D. Behavior of Figures:

1. Lionel’s hand appears from the left-hand side of the screen. He inserts the                                     cassette then hits the play button on the cassette player.

2. Cassette tape rolling.

II. Cinematography

A. Framing

1. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

2. Camera position: Straight on, tilted to the left.

               3. Framing distance: Extreme close-up on cassette and cassette player.

4. Camera Movement: Steady/ no movement.

III. Editing:

Shot 1 ends with a close-up of the cassette player then cuts to Lionel standing in front of the large canvas. We can assume that there is a time lapse from when Lionel inserted the cassette tape to him standing in front of the canvas, because we do not witness him walking away from the player to his position in shot 2. It is also an establishing shot because every time Lionel begins to paint he plays music fitting his mood.

IV. Sound

B. Noise: We hear the sound of the cassette being inserted into the player. Then, the             sound of Lionel pressing the play button on the player.

        C. Music: Diegetic music from the tape player.

Shot 2

I. Mise-en-scene

A. Setting: Lionel’s studio apartment.

 1. Tables with paints, buckets of brushes, canvas, painting in the background, basketball hoop, stacks of books, stacks of sketchpads, extension cord, kitchen chairs, lamps, easels, mirror, paint buckets, paint stained newspaper, magazines, large white stretched canvas with black sketching.

B. Lighting

1. Ratio: Low ratio/high key.

                        2. Quality: Soft, less detailed.

 3. Direction: Brighter back light illuminating his hair and his right arm and right pant leg, left rim of his glasses with standard 45 degree angle.

C. Costume

1. Dirty, loose-fitting blue thin striped button-up collared shirt with paint stains, top few buttons undone.

                                    i. Loose fitting beige cords with some paint stains.

ii. Greasy medium long graying hair.

iii. Large rimmed glasses.

iv. Old, worn black sneakers stained with paint.

D. Behavior of Figures:

1. Lionel stands a few feet away from the large stretch canvas with the black                                     markings.

i. Looks in awe and concentration onto the canvas with his head                                                             slightly tilted to the right

 ii. Moves his right arm twice, as an attempt to move it towards                                                            the canvas.

II. Cinematography

A. Framing

1. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

               2. Camera position: Straight on.

3. Framing distance: Starts as long shot, eventually moves into a medium                                                close-up.

               4. Camera Movement: Tracking shot to the right and circling around Lionel.

III. Editing: Shot 2 ends with Lionel standing then it cuts to a longer shot of Lionel standing. These shots show continuity of action.

IV. Sound

A. Speech: N/A

            B. Noise: N/A

C. Music: Music from the tape player.

Martin Scorsese utilizes the first five shots of chapter two in Life Lessons as establishing shots into Lionel’s character. Key elements of mise-en-scene create drama and tension, emphasizing Lionel’s repressed sexuality towards Paulette. This is demonstrated by the low-key illumination and backlight in the scenes. This lighting creates darker shadows and establishes an intensity and anxiety in Lionel. This intensity is witnessed in Lionel’s actions as he stares deeply at the large, empty canvas. Lionel attempts to move his hand toward the canvas but as the camera changes position to a long shot of him at a high angle and downward, it emphasizes the long distance between Lionel and the canvas. This adds to the audience’s understanding that Lionel is overwhelmed. This suggests that Lionel is preoccupied with thoughts of Paulette, as a results it crates a link between Lionel’s anxiety and the aloof Paulette.


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