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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) - DP: Emmanuel Lubezki

I'm about to use the term "Oscar bait" in a way that's not strictly speaking conventional. Usually it's used to refer to a film or performance that relies on time-tested clichés to rack up the Oscar nominations. Commonly the phenomenon of Oscar bait occurs when an actor drastically changes his or her weight or adapts some sort of impediment for a film like Colin Firth in "The King's Speech" (2010) or when a movie seems to achieve a new level of all out pretentiousness like "The Tree of Life" (2011). In any event, as far as I know this term has never been applied to cinematography and it's about time that someone changed that.

There are a few things that can make an otherwise honorable attempt at cinematography delve into Oscar bait territory. Probably the most egregious offender is shooting in black and white. See "Good Night and Good Luck" (2005), "The Artist" (2011), and "Nebraska" (2013) for just a few films that were undeservedly nominated for cinematography awards at the Oscars on account of their monochromatic palate.

Emmanuel Lubezki didn't go with the tried and true black & white, but he did something possibly even more "baity" by opting for the long take. The ultimate long take. The long take that works on the illusion that the entire film is just one shot. Of course Lubezki is no stranger to this style having already been nominated for an Oscar for his use of long takes in "Children of Men" (2006) and probably more deservedly for "Gravity" (2013), just to name a couple. But that kind of makes me wonder what is it about the many varied films that he works on that lends them to this style of photography. After much deliberation I came to the realization that there is actually no through line here. Instead, there's something more like an obsession for extravagance and it certainly shows in "Birdman," much to the detriment of the film. The great tragedy of this movie is that everything works supremely well from the performances to the narrative to the VFX with the glaring exception of the cinematography.

 When you realize that the camera is all over the place and you end up with amateur level compositions. #longtakeproblems

When you realize that the camera is all over the place and you end up with amateur level compositions. #longtakeproblems

In an interview with Lubezki he points out that both the lighting and blocking the actors with the camera were challenging aspects of the shoot. I can only imagine the complexity that would come into play trying to orchestrate an entire film to appear as one take. At the same time, those two aspects of the process that he pointed out were the parts that completely betrayed the narrative. There are far too many moments in the film when the camera feels like it's awkwardly trying to fit everyone in the frame, or the actors are moving from mark to mark or scene to scene and the camera finds itself in a strange transitional place. That kind of sloppiness makes me just want to throw my hands up in the air and shout, "THIS IS PRECISELY WHY D. W. GRIFFITH INVENTED COVERAGE!" The fact that Lubezki talks about it as a serious challenge in the filmmaking process just forces me to conclude that it was also a serious failure. That was a tall mountain to climb and I don't think they quite made it.

 The lighting is bland, but at least the whole film looks like one shot.

The lighting is bland, but at least the whole film looks like one shot.

The topping on the cake is that the lighting throughout the film is all bad. This is the man who beautifully shot "The Tree of Life" and he managed to sacrifice the lighting for the entire film for the sake of a one take gimmick. There's no way that the need for a long take justifies making the entire film look like any basic TV show. It's really a shame to see such a promising story that was so well performed end up being a victim to some poor choices photographically.


-Sheldon J.