Is 'Birdman' a one-shot 'magic trick' that could win Emmanuel Lubezki his second Oscar in a row?
After landing nomination after nomination without a win, cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki finally claimed an Oscar a few months ago for his jaw-dropping work on Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity." But it wasn't just the technical prowess of the accomplishment that landed him that spotlight, conceiving of new technology to tell the story Cuarón wanted to tell and making it all work so well with the visual effects on display. It was also the drawn-out, patient takes, which Lubezki and Cuarón had been playing with ever since "Y Tu Mamá También" over a decade ago. All of that went toward an identifiable style that became the visual trademark of the movie, and the result was a much-deserved Oscar. But if the word on Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman" is true, then Lubezki could very well be in line for his second in a row.
I was speaking with someone last week who is directly involved with "Birdman," and he told me, in so many words, that the film is constructed to look like one long take. "It's a bit of a magic trick, the way he pulled it off," he said, and I immediately thought of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rope." That 1948 thriller was constructed to look like a single shot through the use of hidden cuts, during which reel changes were made on the camera. It may not be seamless, but for the era, it was an amazing feat. And that seems to be the kind of thing we're dealing with on "Birdman," an elaborate "magic trick" and what is sure to be a dazzling display from Lubezki when the film inevitably plays the Venice, Telluride and/or Toronto film festivals.
I reached out to Lubezki and I didn't get a lot because I have a feeling this is an element of the film they're trying to keep under wraps until it finally screens. "I'm proud of it," he said. "It's such a different experience and approach from anything I have ever seen. I think that Iñárritu did a wonderful job and Michael [Keaton] is absolutely phenomenal. It was such a great experience to watch him working up close." Standard stuff. Nevertheless, this idea of long takes is, again, something he has an affinity for.
Here's what he had to say about that when we spoke last year about his collaboration with Cuarón:
"From the time where we started doing 'Y Tu Mamá También,' we started experimenting with these long scenes that have no intercuts. And for some reason we felt very comfortable doing it. It's hard technically, but the payoff is enormous. It allows the audience to get immersed in the movie."
I imagine a film laid out either to look like a continuous take or actually captured in one would go a long way toward such immersion. It's not necessarily a new concept, though. There's "Rope," but then there's Aleksandr Sokurov's 2002 film "Russian Ark." There's also the Uruguayan film "La Casa Muda," which was remade a few years ago as "Silent House" with Elizabeth Olsen. But to see it on display in a major release like this will be fascinating indeed.
And I can't begin to process the ramifications of an entire film claiming the top spot in my annual top 10 shots of the year column. But that could well be the case.
Meanwhile, people are picking up the pieces to find out more and verify this. Cuarón, for instance, told Capture Mag last year that in 2014 we will "see a film shot in one continuous sequence-shot and it's a masterpiece." In case you're unaware, he and Iñárritu are close friends. Then there was someone here who noted that the entire film was going to be done in one shot, and that person also invoked "Rope." Finally, someone saw an early cut and mentioned an "awe-inspiring 40 minute tracking shot" as part of the overall assemblage. When you watch the trailer, you can kind of see this fluidity on display. And you can also tell there are plenty of digital effects helping to tell the tale as well.
From what I gather from people who have either seen the film internally or a reel here and there, it's some out-of-this-world stuff. What one might have expected to be just a humble Broadway yarn looks to be a bold cinematic vision, not that much less should be expected of craftsmen like this. And if Keaton is delivering such a gem of a latter-career performance, as has been indicated to me, then it's safe to assume he won't merely be in the thick of the Best Actor race for a nomination, but potentially the win as well.
As for Best Cinematography, having seen nothing, mind, I'm still sort of expecting this to be Roger Deakins' year (finally). "Unbroken" looks to deliver the kind of classically gorgeous work that wins out in this category frequently. But as of late, the Academy's view of the category has shifted a bit. And if "Birdman" is going to dazzle on this level, well, maybe Lubezki will claim yet another before the master Deakins lands his first.
We'll save all of that conjecture for further down the line. For now, I just really, really want to see "Birdman." BADLY.
"Birdman" hits theaters on Oct. 17.