Big Lubezki: The Best in the Biz?

26 Oct
Big Lubezki

^ After five previous nods, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki earned an Oscar for 2013’s Gravity. In his remarkable career, he has also amassed four American Society of Cinematographer nods, winning three times, on top of triple Ariel victories out of four nominations, plus numerous other accolades. He may very well top even himself with his latest, Iñárritu’s Birdman.

Have you heard? Michael Keaton is on the cusp of a major comeback via Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman which is just now opening in theatres across the country after causing a stir over the past month or so at various film festivals. The movie conveniently mirrors Keaton’s own career trajectory as an actor once identified with his role as a superhero–the so-called Birdman of the title–who attempts to reinvent himself onstage. Keaton, of course, had already established himself as an acclaimed, versatile actor, specializing in light comedy, as well as a box office draw before reaching all new super levels of stardom when he suited up for Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster, Batman. After the original and its smash sequel, Keaton walked away from the franchise and, somehow, lost part of his allure in the process. 

Now Keaton is earning stellar reviews, and he’s all over the place, such as a recent Entertainment Weekly cover story, which has to rank as one of the most extensive articles the magazine has published in years: approximately 8 pages’ worth.  I’m happy for Keaton. I always liked that he was quite vocal about his relationship with the Bruce Wayne character as opposed to his Batman alter-ego. Keaton made a lasting impression in Burton’s initial installments of the lucrative franchise, and while many moviegoers fondly remember the actor in Beetlejuice, Mr. Mom, and Night Shift, my faves–aside from the Caped Crusader–were always 1986’s Gung Ho (which I think is sadly undervalued) and 1989’s The Dream Team. He won the 1988/89 National Society of Film Critics award, btw, for both Tim Burton’s ghoulish comedy Beetlejuice and Glenn Gordon Caron’s recovery drama, Clean and Sober. 

In spite of all the Birdman hoopla, and multiple viewings of the trailer, I admit I haven’t been too stoked about seeing it, that is, until I read that Iñárritu has teamed with Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and the pair has attempted to simulate the effect of a single, uninterrupted take, a la Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope. Well, I’m certainly down with that, especially on the heels of Lubezeki’s triumph with last year’s Gravity, which maximized cinematic trickery in order to suspend audience disbelief and send Sandra Bullock hurtling through space. Genius. Now, Lubezki is on the verge of topping himself, thereby begging the question, “Is the Big Lubezki the best cinematographer in the biz?”

I’ve been having an affair with Lubezki for more than 20 years. Here’s a look at the highlights:



^ Como agua para chocolate (1992) PHOTO: Wikipedia

^ After establishing himself in his native Mexico and earning an Ariel nod–the Mexican Oscar equivalent–for Sólo con tu pareja, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, Lubezki moved to the international film arena with the hugely popular Like Water for Chocolate (aka Como agua para chocolate), this time under the direction of Alfonso Arau. Lubezki won his first Ariel while the movie proved a sure-fire crowd pleaser at the local Inwood theatre, running for seemingly at first weeks and then months on end. Of course, the draw was not so much Lubezki’s imagery, per se, but the thrill of lusty young romance and enormous attention to exquisitely realized food. 

a little princess

A Little Princess (1995) PHOTO: Cinema is My Passion

Lubezki attracted the attention of American filmmakers soon after Like Water for Chocolate and within a few years, he snagged his first Oscar nomination–for 1995’s A Little Princess, adapted from the same classic Frances Hodgson Burnett book that proved such a memorable vehicle for Shirley Temple in the 1930s. Directed by Cuarón, the production was filmed almost entirely on Hollywood sound stages and the Warner’s backlot, all to incredible effect. Lubezki was joined in the Oscar race by the design team of Bo Welch and Cheryl Carasick though they all went home empty handed.



For all the fuss over A Little Princess, I actually preferred Lubezki’s work in the same year’s A Walk in the Clouds, directed by Arau and inspired by Italian director Alessandro Blasetti’s Four Steps in the Clouds from the 1940s. This American remake takes place in California wine country, also in the 1940s. Keanu Reeves plays a returning soldier who pretends to be the husband of a pregnant grad student (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) he meets on a bus. Complications ensue, mostly in the form of the woman’s tradition-minded dad (the great Giancarlo Giannini).  What the movie lacks in subtlety or believability it more than makes up for with gosh-darn swoony romanticism, courtesy of Lubezki’s painterly rendering of naturally lush landscapes, of course, along with highly photogenic actors, and Maurice Jarre’s majestic–and Oscar nominated–score.  (The above clip doesn’t really do Lubezki justice.) Though far from a major hit, the movie enjoyed a a few weeks hovering near the top of the box office charts during the waning days of summer, 1995. I still get a kick out of repeating the story about how I called the offices of the American Society of Cinematographers early in 1996 to learn the names of that year’s ASC nominees (for the purpose of making a mini lobby display where I worked at the time). When I expressed something akin to shock that Lubezki wasn’t a finalist, the kind woman who spoke to me confessed that she had gotten more calls and/or more comments about that particular omission than any other film all day. Maybe she was just flattering me. Still, it’s a good story. Ultimately, both the ASC and the Academy honored John Toll for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, a stunning–and not unfounded–turn of events for Toll who had won the previous year’s Oscar for Legends of the Fall.


The Birdcage (1996) PHOTO: DVD Subtitles Database

Wonderful Elaine May adapted The Birdcage from Jean Poiret’s La Cage aux Folles (first a play and then a hugely successful 1978 film). No less than Oscar winner–and May’s famously frequent collaborator–Mike Nichols directed.  Robin Williams gives one of his most winningly understated performances, and Nathan Lane, well, Nathan Lane tries hard. I hate to sound like an elitist, but I still much prefer the French original with Ugo Tonazzi and Michel Serrault inhabiting the roles played by Williams and Lane, respectively, though this 1996 Americanized edition was a huge, huge hit. I’m partial to the original mainly because Serrault goes farther in developing his character, a high strung drag queen who seems lost trying to “pass” as a straight man, than Lane doing the same bit. Serrault mines the material for real emotional depth while Lane just flails about looking to score easy laughs; however, that’s not even my biggest complaint. No, the real issue I have is that May’s script for all its punch so closely follows the original (which I saw multitudinous times) as to be merely redundant. What’s the point? Oh, I guess an American version absolves a few lazy moviegoers from reading subtitles, but that’s about it. Of course, many queer activists take great umbrage at what’s basically a gay minstrel show, anyway, that is, a movie about gays that appeals to “straight” sensibilities, and it’s hard to argue against that. Still, May and/or Nichols cleverly relocate the story from Saint-Tropez to Miami’s  South Beach, giving cinematographer Lubezki a chance to move away from the burnished palette in his previous films to something that really pops.  The next few years brought the likes of Great Expectations (1998), and the elegant yet funereal Meet Joe Black (1998).


Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Lubezki scored his second Oscar nod for Sleepy Hollow, Tim Burton’s stylish re-vamp of Washington Irving’s classic creepy tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” starring Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane (more or less) and Christopher Walken as the Headless Horseman. Though set in 18th century New York, the movie was filmed almost entirely in England at various real-life locations as well as on built from-the-ground-up exterior sets. Interiors were naturally filmed on studio sound stages. Furthermore, the creepy forest where much of the action takes place was actually an indoor set, thereby presenting multiple challenges for Lubezki who met the commanding challenge of lighting real exteriors and fake exteriors in such a way that the shots matched or at least evinced some thread of continuity. The effect, reportedly consistent with Burton’s vision, suggests the now revered horror films released by England’s Hammer Films beginning in the 1950s and up through the 1970s. In this case, the team of Rick Heinrichs and Peter Young won Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration.


^ The New World (2005)

After Sleepy Hollow, Lubezki  reunited with Cuarón for Y tu mamá también (introducing heartthrobs Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna to international audiences in the process) and then hiccuped with 2003’s dreadful The Cat in the Hat (2003). He returned to form with the much better received–and dare I say slightly Burtonesque–Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004). Oscar nomination number three came the following year for The New World, director Terrence Malick’s take on legendary Pocahontas, the Native American woman (played by newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher) who reportedly saved the life of Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) at the Jamestown settlement and went on to marry settler John Rolfe (Christian Bale).  Though far from a hit, and maybe not much of a history lesson, the movie nonetheless received raves for Lubezki’s sumptuous imagery. In his quest for historical authenticity, Malick and his team secured locations near the original Jamestown settlement in Virginia. Additionally, some footage was shot using 65 mm film for enhanced resolution.



Clearly already gifted, Lubezki graduated to a whole new realm of filmmaking when he reteamed with Cuarón for a dystopian thriller based on a novel by British mystery writer P.D. James, of all people. Besides the gritty monochromatic effect, Children of Men is also marked by an emphasis on long uninterrupted takes, especially a much celebrated opening in which the camera follows, and then bobs and weaves around leading actor Clive Owen as he exits a coffee shop and walks down a busy street just before an explosion. And so it begins. Lubezki claimed his first ASC award for this one though he lost the Oscar to Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth). By the way, I’m sure any resemblance between this film and the recent Lifetime series The Lottery, in which women have mysteriously stopped having babies, is purely intended as Children of Men screenwriter Timothy J. Sexton also created, executive-produced, and co-wrote the recent TV offering.

Lubezki reteamed with Malick on 2011’s Cannes fest champion, The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and the then barely known Jessica Chastain. Sean Penn played a featured role as well. I really thought that with this incredible, almost singular, film, that seemingly chronicles almost every moment of a young boy’s life (while also hypothesizing about the earth’s creation), Lubezki would finally take home an Oscar. Simply, as the above trailer shows, the movie boasts one glorious image after another, much of it created using natural lighting. Most of The Tree of Life was filmed in or near Austin, Texas, though Dallas’s Thanksgiving Square has a cameo. The film, Malick, and Lubezki were all nominated for Oscars though none emerged victorious, the Academy being enthralled that year by the likes of such as The Artist and Hugo, with the latter’s esteemed Robert Richardson claiming the trophy in Lubezki’s category.  On the other hand, Lubezki found favor with this ASC peers and took home yet another guild award. Malick and Lubezki collaborated yet again on 2012’s To the Wonder, but that entry received scant attention.


^ Gravity (2013)

Alfonso Cuarón reteamed with Lubezki for last year’s groundbreaking Gravity starring Sandra Bullock. Working closely together, Lubezki and his director designed an ever shifting lighting scheme to simulate the effect of floating in space: roving uninterrupted takes, with much of the action recorded in the closed confines of a so-called LED “lightbox.” Additionally, Lubezki dove into a tank with Bullock for a crucial underwater sequence. At last, Lubezki earned his Oscar–as did Cuarón.


Picture 1

Birdman (2014) PHOTO: Entertainment Weekly

With Birdman, Michael Keaton may very well resurrect his career and earn the Oscar nod which has thus far eluded him.  This recent Entertainment Weekly article reiterates how Lubezki continues to conquer all new logistical challenges as he and Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu attempt the rarity of shooting a feature length film in a way that suggests one continuous take. This, I gotta see.

Thanks, Emanuel!

Lubezki at the Internet Movie Database:

Link to Entertainment Weekly‘s Michael Keaton/Birdman cover story by Mark Harris:



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