Touchstone Pictures

When Martin Scorsese asked Richard Price to adapt Dostoevsky’s novella The Gambler for film, the art world craze of the late 1980s was at its peak. Scorsese had already explored the absurdities of lower Manhattan counter culture for satire in the film After Hours. What occupies the filmmaker and the screenwriter here is obsession: from the Russian source material, they borrow the story of a man tormented by his mistress. The resulting “Life Lessons,” Scorsese’s 40-minute contribution to the Woody-Marty-Francis Ford Coppola omnibus New York Stories (1989) is less about poking fun (though there are some simplistic jibes at artists, particularly at Steve Buscemi’s performance artist character); and more about self-examination. The short addresses the messy compulsions to love and to create.

As in all Scorsese films, the camera—its movements, the swift and powerful swing of its address—is also Scorsese’s preoccupation. The director’s concern above all is the plastic element of art, both with regard to painting, the film’s ostensible material, and to cinema, Scorsese’s lifelong project.

As a filmmaker, Scorsese leans in—his stories are grandly operatic and his fingerprint insistent. Rather than presenting a frame that compels an audience to find the action (as in the deliberate panoramas of Antonioni, for example), Scorsese allows the audience to see only what the filmmaker chooses to display in bold, kinetic flourishes. And because Scorsese’s knowledge of film is encyclopedic, he can employ all of cinema’s tools when he is inspired.

“Life Lessons” begins with a neat attention grab in the style of the nouvelle vague, a series of iris shots that dilate on points of interest. In this case, we get glimpses of an oil painting by our New York anti-hero, Lionel Dobie (Nick Nolte) – abstract expressionist, alleged genius, half hobo, entrenched manchild. When we reverse from the canvas, Dobie holds a thousand yard stare—at us, at the work, at his own internal distress, it’s impossible to say.

Dobie stands frozen in his studio when he receives a visit from a Gagosian-type suit who wants to see the work he will be selling in three weeks, at the opening of Dobie’s next show. Lionel doesn’t let the dealer in. Instead, he stamps the down button on the loft elevator, explaining, “I have to pick up my assistant from the airport. Don’t know why she can’t take a cab like everybody else.”

The gallerist understands the statement, like nearly all of Lionel’s words, to be a feint. Dobie has no paintings to show or no confidence yet in showing them. “This happens every time. You should get to know yourself!” the dealer shouts when he is sent away. Dobie’s biorhythm—as an artist, as a man—requires procrastination and torment (self-applied and inflicted upon others) before he can settle in and work. The chaos is cliched, but perhaps the hallmark of the artist is the haven that the art provides. If the work is tough to produce, it’s still less noisome than the outside world, where selfish desires must enter into negotiation with others’ needs. (In how many cases of suffering writers and performers have we heard that it was easier to work than to deal with the tangled complications of life?). For Dobie, art is protection; it’s a self assertion; it’s a crutch.

Into this squall returns Lionel’s assistant, Paulette (Rosanna Arquette). He meets her at the airport, not at her request, but in stark contrast to her wishes. She’s left her employer (they’ve been sleeping together, of course) for another man. But this man has found Paulette lacking—what was meant to be a grand gesture, abandoning established Dobie for an edgier artist, has backfired. Now she wants to pack up her things and leave. “Where you gonna go? What can you afford?” Lionel asks her. “You work for the Lion, baby. You get room, board and life lessons that are priceless.”

If After Hours reminds us of the petty crimes provoked by the gentrification of lower Manhattan, “Life Lessons” shows us the transgressions that are a piece with headier aspirations of conquering that world. Dobie leverages the most sobering fact of New York life: money means nearly everything. The city is a place for commerce, not for love or artistic ideals. Dollars may follow achievement and notoriety, but first you need to be able to stay there.

As in Desperately Seeking Susan, in which Rosanna Arquette plays a housewife who takes on the persona of a more actualized and supremely charismatic person (Madonna), her Paulette is an I in search of a self. She’s also the perfect presentation of inchoate youth. Paulette has desires, values, and priorities, but they seem reactive and impulsive. “What’s your name?” a Dobie admirer asks her in passing. “Just Paulette,” she replies, as if dropping a surname is sufficient to achieve the heft of a career.

For a short time, Dobie is her compass. He offers the illusion of success via the access Paulette achieves through him. But this is one of Lionel’s mostly unintentional lessons—access is nothing without achievement. Standing next to fame or talent doesn’t transfer those laurels.

Like Godard’s view of Brigitte Bardot in Contempt, Scorsese focuses on the details of Paulette’s appeal: her extended foot, the fan of her hair. Blatantly objectified, she still manages to generate some emotional torment for Dobie, who craves control of her at least as much as he desires her. But the more Paulette despises Dobie, the more deeply she despises herself. The scope of Dobie’s achievements push Paulette to rely on her paucity of strengths—a sexual allure that is fleeting and replaceable. She strikes out where and when she can.

Most frequently, Scorsese’s subjects center on power and individuality within a hierarchy. So in some ways, “Life Lessons” keeps the filmmaker within his established framework—for Dobie and for Paulette, mastery over others is infinitely more reliable than mastery over self. Dobie, “The Lion,” is a kind of king of the art world, and needs to maintain his status both as an artist and as a man. Paulette, on the other hand, struggles to be seen. Whether she can achieve this goal—through provocation, aesthetic triumph or trophy partner status—is not yet known. But in both cases, “Life Lessons” teaches us that art is a question of persuasive fraudulence. It’s a showman’s act (the performance of being an artist) and a work of actual alchemy—the composite of an individual, a set of circumstances, and what he or she makes of them—with an unpredictable outcome and unknown reception.

“Tell me if I’m any good,” Paulette demands of Dobie, when he stands wordlessly in front of her painting. The vaguely figurative canvas is neither good nor lamentably bad. She’s too young, too nascent, to predict her outcome as an artist. But maybe her biggest mistake is conferring upon Dobie the status of arbiter. He struggles to give her compliments, but his reply is probably the most useful answer: “What the hell difference does it make what I think? It’s yours… It’s not about talent, it’s about no choice but to do it.”

Scorsese has always made great use of source music. Here, Dobie’s tape deck reflects his emotional state, whether he’s trying to disrupt Paulette’s sleep (her bed is in a makeshift loft with a cutout window that Dobie lobs his basketball into when he wants a pretext to talk to her) or attempting to sort out his artistic vision. He plays Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” to the point of obsession—this, we sense, is his world, a looping series of preoccupations that worry him until he produces.

Is Lionel the real thing? As an artist, he is filmed persuasively. His work may not fit all tastes, but it is grand, garish, ambitious, and assertive. The filming of the paintings matches their energetic geneses. And Dobie is played aptly by Nick Nolte, who lends to the part a madman’s disarray, an actor’s sensitivity, and a star’s disregard. Dobie is manipulative and self-centered, mostly because he can be. Art is a drug – and for the other characters in the film, Dobie is their favorite dealer. The funny thing about life is that it will keep giving lessons to Lionel and to all the young women who meet him; the question is if Lionel, for all his brilliant output and accolades, is hungry enough to take them.