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The Cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki: Shaping the Landscape of Modern Film

Written by on January 6, 2016 

Emmanuel Lubezki

Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki is a brilliant cinematographer whose work has helped shape the landscape of modern cinematic photography. During his 32-year career, Lubezki has worked with such greats as Mike Nichols, Joel and Ethan Coen, Terrence Malick, and Michael Mann, as well as technology-defying directors such as Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu. He even worked alongside Martin Scorsese as a camera operator on The Rolling Stones documentary Shine a Light, alongside Robert Richardson.

Lubezki’s latest project reunites him with Iñárritu for a brooding, intense historical epic about fur trapper Hugo Glass. Although the movie itself receives a somewhat mixed reception, Lubezki’s photography alone is worth the price of admission, as we noted in our yearly cinematography wrap-up. Before checking out The Revenant when it opens wide this Friday, we’ve selected some of our favorites in his illustrious filmography, each exquisite in their own unique ways. Please enjoy below, and suggest your own favorites in the comments.

Like Water For Chocolate (Alfonso Arau)

Like Water For Chocolate

A lively adaptation of the popular Mexican novel, Like Water For Chocolate flaunts its bewitching visuals and charming narrative diversions, reveling in a dream-like sense of wonder. Sharing thematic sensibilities with Lubezki’s later work on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, we follow Tita (Bottle Rocket‘s Lumi Cavazos), a young Mexican woman living under the imposed rule of her mother. Tita is forbidden to marry Pedro, the man of her dreams, who instead weds Tita’s sister. She’s left to remain a humble cook and servant, taking care of her domineering mother until her death. On her sister’s wedding day, Tita weeps into the cake batter, which causes those who eat it to fall under a sudden spell of melancholia. It isn’t long before Tita realizes the depths of the powers she can wield with her supernatural cooking. This is a warm and hopeful film, and Lubezki’s cinematography mirrors these uplifting emotions, bestowing events with a golden, sunset-like color palette.

Reality Bites (Ben Stiller)

Reality Bites

Lubezki’s first taste of Hollywood was Ben Stiller‘s directorial debut, Reality Bites, which follows four directionless twenty-somethings fumbling through their first year of adulthood. As dated as the surface details of its early-90s setting may seem, the film cleverly taps into the chaos and fear of the world of post-academia. Working with Stiller was a unique and tricky experience for the cinematographer. Lubezki admits in a Hitfix Oral History of the film that he did not find the script particularly funny. Looking back, the strongest and most resonant comedic moments arise from the charismatic performances of its leads, who together share a warm onscreen chemistry. Lubezki’s visual approach to dry comedy was relatively simple: “I never like comedies that are lit to be funny. It’s not the light that is funny.” Mixing lo-fi video footage with ethereally hazy shots of Houston, Texas allowed Lubezki to capture the essence of those times. Though this wasn’t a period film upon its release, it certainly is now, thus cementing Reality Bites as a truthful snapshot of ’90s culture.

The Birdcage (Mike Nichols)

The Birdcage

Following his more frequent collaborations with Alfonso Cuarón and Alfonso Arau, The Birdcage might seem like a mainstream diversion for Lubezki. With Reality Bites under his belt, Lubezki’s second brush with Hollywood was a more assured and confident work. The film opens with a long sweeping shot moving across Miami’s South Beach and into the titular club, where the camera moves through the dance floor and even onto the stage for close ups. Not necessarily as accomplished as the infamous Goodfellas Copacabana dolly, but Nichols and Lubezki’s visual ambitions are towering ones. The shot consisted of three separate takes, with cuts digitally hidden — a technique Lubezki still employs as recently as in Birdman and The Revenant. It’s truly thrilling to see each successive attempt at this technique improve its sophistication, the subtleties and complexities deepening with each passing film.

Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton)

Sleepy Hollow

Working with a visual auteur such as Tim Burton must be like a gift to a cinematographer, gaining the chance to lovingly explore moody and atmospheric landscapes dripping with rich detail. Lubezki paints the film in a ghostly gray pallor, each citizen of Sleepy Hollow pale white and cloaked in a thick layer of fog. Ever-present iconography of the damned — picturesque scarecrows, jack-o’-lanterns, and various other spooky, antiquated artifacts of Halloween — subtly blanket the film. Every inch of Sleepy Hollow feels steeped in Gothic aura and dread as Ichabod Crane attempts to solve the mystery of the Headless Horseman. Crane’s numerous flashback dream sequences are the most gorgeous in the film, eye-catching excuses for Lubezki and Burton to crank up the visual flourishes all the way to eleven. It’s an impressively made film, which has surprisingly aged rather well.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Niels Mueller)

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

The doomed assassination attempt on Richard Nixon by a man named Sam Byck (spelled Bicke in the movie) is an oft-forgotten chapter in U.S. history. It’s another story of a lone assassin who seemed so normal to his oblivious friends and neighbors. Mueller‘s 2004 film feels as relevant today as it ever did. The disenfranchised little guy hellbent on capturing the American dream at any violent cost remains an ever-present archetype in contemporary society. Lubezki’s camera continually catches Bicke (Sean Penn, in a tortured and mournful performance) in close-up, always underlining the protagonist’s carelessness and ineptitude. Like witnessing a car wreck in slow motion, the film’s impending violence feels as foreboding and cautionary as anything I’ve ever seen. Bicke is as out of his depth as a father as he is as a salesman or political assassin, the horizon ever unsteady as Lubezki’s hand-held camera catches his downcast eyes and menacing expression.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (Brad Silberling)

Lemony Snicket

A cheerfully morbid and irreverent adaptation of Daniel Handler‘s macabre fairy tale series invokes the same magical tones as Like Water For Chocolate and Sleepy Hollow, yet adds a goofy, playful edge to the material. After a grisly fire takes the lives of their loving parents, the Baudelaire children become wealthy orphans, transferred into the care of the possibly murderous Count Olaf, played by a deliriously unhinged Jim Carrey. Hungry for their inheritance, Olaf concocts one horrific plan after another, attempting to kill these children once and for all. It’s a fine rejoinder to the belief that cinematography cannot add to comedy, for the film continually surprises us with lovingly executed sight gags that enhance its colorful and vividly depicted world.It’s almost a shame that the film’s core audience is likely too young to fully appreciate Lubezki’s work in all of its nuances.

Burn After Reading (Joel and Ethan Coen)

Burn After Reading

Notable as one of the few films from Joel and Ethan Coen not photographed by their longtime collaborator Roger Deakins, Burn After Reading provided a huge opportunity for Lubezki. Working on the Coen brothers’ first original comedy since O Brother Where Art Thou? allowed Lubezki a chance to closely collaborate with incredible comedic performers at the top of their game. The film is a satire of both bureaucratic CIA politics and tragically vain fitness instructors, featuring gleefully over-the-top turns from Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, and Tilda Swinton. The Washington Monument and other towering symbols of government creep in the background, firmly anchoring these protagonists in this stifling landscape. Lubezki frames the film as if it were The Bourne Identity, only without all that silly action and suspense. Perhaps not the finest work of the brothers’ career, but a minor Coen film is still far greater than a vast majority of contemporary cinematic fare.

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