|by Matt Bartley
Welcome to the Hollywood Bitchslap Hall of Fame. This is the place where, we, the critics of this site induct a person - be they actor, actress, director or other - into our own Hall of Fame for their outstanding contribution to the cinema that we know and love. The criteria is simple: we are not bound by volume or era, so anyone from the 1920s to the present day, anyone with a career of 80 films or 8 films can be inducted. All we ask is one thing: that they have provided we critics, who are film lovers above all else, another reason to keep going to the cinema week after week.
This months inductee - Emmanuel Lubezki.
The three best friends a director can have is a great editor, a great composer and a great cinematographer and it's no surprise that the best of directors usually keep faith with the same three people in these roles for film after film. A great editor can take huge amounts of rushes and transform them into a coherent and logical sequence, whilst a great composer can graft a director's images alongside a tune that once heard is never forgotten. A cinematographer however, is the person that perhaps more than anyone deserves to share any awards that the director is given, because they are the ones that make the director's vision look wonderful. From Jack Cardiff to Janusz Kaminski and from Gordon Willis to Geoffrey Unsworth, cinematographers have been responsible for some of the most astounding images in cinema and Emmanuel Lubezki is someone whose name belongs to that list, without question.
What's misleading to an outsider is that a cinematographer merely makes everything look pretty and sunny. That's why some people would say Michael Bay films have great cinematography, simply because they look like shampoo adverts. What someone like Lubezki understands however, is that there must be a fidelity to the source material. From a future dystopia to a haunted wood and from the undiscovered lands of America to the greatest sporting match ever seen, Lubezki makes these worlds like wonderful, whilst illustrating the subtle differences between them.
If there's one relationship Lubezki has formed meaningfully it's with Alfonso Cuaron, way back from their Mexican beginnings. Here, we can see instantly Lubezki's knack for making films sunny, yet perfectly natural. In Y tu Mama Tambien, he perfectly captures the dry and dusty atmosphere of the road and also in Hearts of Atlantis where his instinctive feel for sunlight, dappled with dust, nostalgically sums up the feeling of childhood. If there's one early thematic theme with Lubezki's work, it's with his use of sunlight relating to childhood or naivety - look how he uses the light for the first kiss in Great Expectations.
But as his reputation grew, so has his range and variety. Take a look at his collaboration with Tim Burton on Sleepy Hollow. There is no finer tribute to the Hammer Horror films than this, and Lubezki knows it. As Rob Gonsalves notes in his review, "In Sleepy Hollow, based glancingly on the Washington Irving story, Burton and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki give us a world of fog and chill; the blacks are blacker than midnight in a coal mine, and the whites -- well, there isn't much white, just gradations of gray. Burton doesn't wallow in gloom; he luxuriates in it, and the result, for all its drabness, is a work of great morose beauty. One almost wishes that there were no script at all -- that the film were silent, even". Sleepy Hollow is a film of great beauty - not just the depth and the darkness of the woods, not just the oaky warmth of the interiors, but also the sheer gothic beauty of that endless grey sky.
It's true that Lubezki often works in fantastical realms, sometimes to his detriment. We have to acknowledge that he worked on The Cat in the Hat, if only for fairness - yet there's even the argument that as much as the film is a day-glo nightmare, it should be that way. It's a gaudy, candy migraine of a film but you can't deny that Lubezki makes it glow with childish glee. A much better example of his work in children's fantasy would be the adaptation of Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events. Again, Lubezki combines with the director to create a world of stormy, rain lashed shadows. The sheer pictorial quality of his work is staggering and David Cornelius sums up Lubezki's work alongside the rest of the production team: "the feel of the movie is so spot-on that this becomes one of those wonderful films that’s just a treat to sit back, tune out the plot a tad, and soak in the tone", and it's praise that Laura Kyle agrees upon "The setting is enjoyably grim; dark colors beautifully overwhelm every scene".
But Lubezki is not just tied to one genre. Michael Mann picked him to work on Ali and Lubezki effortlessly produced another sterling piece of work. He captures the gloomy training scenes and early days of Ali in a grim, grainy style, yet the final Rumble in the Jungle is as much of a contrast as you could think. Colourful, powerful and heady, Lubezki paints Mann's scene in a way that captures the sheer blood, sweat and toil that this final fight demanded. As well as this Lubezki works in a way that never seems contemporary, he fits into whatever period the film requires. This is also true of his work on The Assassination of Richard Nixon, where his paranoid and sweaty work on Sean Penn's character in meltdown could easily fit alongside similar work from its historical period such as Gordon Willis and his work on The Godfather or The Parallax View.
It is in the last couple of years that Lubezki has seen his stock dramatically elevate however. Firstly there's the fact that Terence Malick picked Lubezki to work on The New World. For all the Malick haters out there (and there are a lot), one thing that cannot be denied is that Lubezki makes The New World a genuine thing of beauty. There are whole scenes that could be paused, printed and hung up as works of art. Lubezki has the eye of a great technician but the heart of a nature photographer. Never before has a historical period seemed so alien, yet so fresh and beautiful. Lubezki captures the discovery of these new lands as if they had been found for the first time and he finds so much lingering beauty that it overwhelms you. Jason Whyte is a firm fan of the work he does here in his review: "The look of the film is incredibly important, and therefore Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki deserves his own paragraph. Malick, like Stanley Kubrick before him, is passionate about finding the best talent infront and behind the camera, and Lubezki’s photography is flawless, showing nature as something that is not only close and right at our touch, but as something that truly interacts with its people. Utilizing select wide lenses and framing, the film overwhelms our senses just from the first few minutes. Some select scenes were shot in the 65mm format (99 % all film-oriented projects are shot in 35mm) to enhance some of the jaw-dropping visuals, and if this film does not win the Best Cinematography Oscar (screw you, Brokeback Mountain!) there is no justice in the Academy." It is bucolic work also described as "stunning" by Peter Sobcynzski and agreed upon in the review of Abishek Bandekar, who notes: "Emmanuel Lubezki, the DOP, is the true victor of this film who under Malick’s transcendental direction creates images that are purely divine. A treat for the senses indeed!"
Yet within a few months, Lubezki was presenting us with a totally different example of his work. Children of Men, with its end of the world scenario, was as far away as possible from the beautiful discoveries of The New World, yet shares many characteristics. It's a totally different palette - grim, rainy and dour - yet Lubezki, reteaming with Cuaron again, makes it seem fresh and never falls back onto cliches. He never uses stock images or ways of presenting the future, but does so in a way that maintains the inherent realism of the situation. It was work that Erik Childress raved over in his review: "Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki maneuver through these scenes like the offspring of the world’s steadiest documentarian and the greatest dance choreographer alive. If Lubezki fails to garner a nomination for his work on this film (for EVERY organization that honors cinematography), it will rank as one of the greatest injustices on cinema record" and also found a fan in Peter Sobcynzski "Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have taken ordinary story elements and presented them in such a visually dynamic and distinctive way that it feels as if we are literally seeing them for the first time. Throughout the film, there are a number of bravura sequences–a trip into the woods that turns violent with terrifying speed and a long shot given us the lay of the land of one of the refugee camps–and it climaxes with an extended and seemingly seamless single-camera tour of the camp under violent siege that is simply one of the most unforgettable bits of visual storytelling that I have ever seen".
Lubezki is by no means an oldhand in cinema, he is still a young man. Yet that is what makes him so exciting and so worthy of praise here. He has already reached several career highs that peers twice his age have yet to reach, and there is still more to come. As Jason Whyte says: "Lubezki is a genius. With the exception of Ali (which was only partially shot on high-definition, mostly by Michael Mann's insistence), he's pro-film all the way, so we'll probably never see a digitally shot film from him in the near future. I'll take dibs on Christopher Doyle (my favorite DP working today) for a future Hall of Famer.
"The New World" is one of the first films to use 5-perf, 65mm negative photography (aka. Super Panavision 70) for non effects shots since Hamlet in 1996. ("The Prestige" (Wally Pfister, DP) also had several shots done in 5/65, and many of the effects plates for the Spider-Man films have also used 65mm and Vistavision). While many believe that it is too costly to do a film in large format again, I think it is doable if done carefully, and either Lubezki or Pfister could definitely do it for a whole show.
Lubezki is also known to balance his style accurately to the story that the filmmakers are telling, so you'll either have a film shot mostly with available light (The New World, Children of Men), or an elaborate lighting scheme (Cat in the Hat, Sleepy Hollow)." Lubezki is a man who can adapt easily to what the story requires and has as much technical skill as he has inspiration and a sheer natural feel for what is required.
So, for providing us with so many beautiful images in the last ten years, for showing an endlessly creative fountain of ideas, and for simply promising us so much more to come, Emmanuel Lubezki, we salute you.
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originally posted: 07/19/07 05:38:29
last updated: 07/20/07 14:16:21