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.

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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