Gilbey on Film: love inanimate

Fine animation doesn't always produce cinematic novelty.

Gorgeous, fluid animation helps the Spanish-made love story Chico & Rita stand out from the crowd. It's a languid, atmospheric affair about the on-off romance between a knockout jazz pianist and a chanteuse, beginning in 1940s Havana and winding its way through 1950s New York, Paris and Las Vegas. It is tenderly drawn, bristling with lively detail, but with a strange vacuum at its core. The passion for jazz is palpable, the carnality less so. As one of my favourite critics, Nigel Andrews, suggests in the Financial Times, "the love affair, maybe, should have gone back to the drawing-board."

Most cinema aspires to the condition of Saturday-morning animation -- that is, simplistic characterisation, primary colours, violence without consequence. But there's a persistent frisson, even in our post-Fritz the Cat/Akira/Team America age, to seeing animated features which are aimed far over the heads of children. Animation usually represents our first contact with the moving image, and that association takes a long time to challenge. The form has unshakable connotations of innocence and simplicity, and there's a special thrill when adult material trespasses on that territory. Persepolis and Waltz with Bashir, or Richard Linklater's Rotoscope twin-pack, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, are among the recent grown-up ventures into cartoonland which drew on the mismatch between soft lines and hard truths.

These films exploited animation as a proxy either for memory, dreams or delirium. It's much rarer for a filmmaker to use animation to tell a story straight, as Chico & Rita does. It has more in common in theory with Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies, the story of two Japanese children orphaned during the Second World War. Both films attempt to shake off most of the flourishes typical of animation, using it instead to evoke an otherwise unattainable essence. Something as traumatic as Grave of the Fireflies would be harder to achieve with a flesh-and-blood cast rather than a pen-and-ink one. A live-action Chico & Rita, with all the period sets and costumes it would demand, could only fall at the first hurdle: budget. (The Cotton Club has its defenders but even they wouldn't claim it was a money-spinner.)

Despite liking the film, I was bemused by last week's interview with its directors on The Culture Show, where Mark Kermode told them: "I think in this film you have the best sex scene I've seen in cinema this year." The movie I saw showed the main characters in a naked, moonlit embrace, with Chico kissing Rita's breasts, and the camera retreating along the bed, before we cut to the next morning, with Chico (clothed) at the piano, and Rita (naked) sashaying across the room toward him. The advantages of shooting a sex scene in an animated film are clear -- none of the participants is likely to have a no-nudity clause in their contract. But while the scene is perfectly sultry, I wonder what Kermode saw in it. As far as I could tell, it adhered entirely to the central demand of any live-action equivalent: women can be shown naked, but male nudity is taboo.

Another gripe. The film took six years to make, so you can't help but feel disappointed that no one involved in that painstaking production noticed that Chico has many lengthy flashbacks to events at which he wasn't present, in places he hasn't even visited.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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