Sunday, September 15, 2013

Life Lessons: Character Dynamics Reflected in Shot Composition


Life Lessons, a 1989 short film directed by Martin Scorsese and included in the collection "New York Stories," follows obsessive New York painter Lionel Dobie as he guilts and tricks Paulette, a girl "working" for him, into staying with him. A story centered around struggling to maintain control and power, many of the film elements showcase Dobie's stages and feelings in regards to the power he has (or power he doesn't have!) I specifically found the shot composition to do an effective job at reflecting the power dynamics.

At the start of the film Dobie brings Paulette to his car. There is a shot where Paulette is in the foreground and Dobie is the background. It is obvious that Paulette does not want to be with Dobie and does not want to get into his car. But, Dobie is going to get what he wants. Intruding her personal space bubble, Dobie comes into the foreground, creating an awkward and tense feeling for the viewer, as though Dobie is popping our space bubble too.

Later on in the film Dobie, just like usual, is unable to resist his temptation to be with Paulette. He decides to go upstairs into the room of sleeping Paulette. As we see Paulette in bed, Dobie's shadow slowly creeps in on top of her. The composition of this shot not only feels intrusive, but it also metaphorically reflects the circumstances of the power dynamic: Dobie is like a monster. The use of shadow is surreal and not natural, just like the way Dobie views his relationship towards Paulette.

During the film Paulette meets a young painter named Reuben. She brings him over the Dobie's place. When Dobie gets back home, he sees the silhouette of Paulette and Reuben getting down to business. This can also be attributed to the choice of location and set design, but the windows are small in the frame, and don't really allow for any privacy. With Dobie big the foreground looking up at the little framed silhouettes of Paulette and Reuben, we are painted a clear picture of how Dobie is a control freak and needs to watch over her and know of her business. He is almost god-like looking at them as though they are a movie to be watched and reacted to.

Finally power dynamics begin to shift as we start to see Paulette using Dobie just as much as Dobie is using her. While on a staircase talking, Paulette manages to stand a step above him, making her framed slightly above him. This reflects how she is using him in order for her own excelling in the art world.

Two or three times in the film we see a quick-cut surreal fantasy of what Dobie is thinking. Each time this happen we are shown quick cuts of close ups of the girl's bodies (necks, lips, feet, profiles, etc). This reflects how Dobie views the girl's in a merely lustful way. They are things rather than talented individuals. Throughout the film he will never tell Paulette that she is actually talented, and to nail the hammer on the head, he quickly throws her away upon meeting another attractive artist right at the end of the film. The choice of showing many close ups amps up the facts that Dobie is fueled by sexual lust and attraction rather genuine feelings for these individuals.

Overall practically every scene is shot in such a way that it purposefully reflects the power dynamics of the characters. Because of this, the shot design acts as overall metaphor for the spine of the whole film. Good job (as usual) Scorsese!