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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Utopian tale of Milton Keynes weaves together social history and memoir

Meanwhile Bake Off squares up to the BBC's new Family Cooking Showdown.

Central Milton Keynes: you’ve never seen anything like it, as the song on the Eighties promotional flexi-disc used to go. This is rubbish, of course. With its dreary shopping centres, boring-looking estates and endless roundabouts, Milton Keynes looks, at the beginning of the 21st century, like the newer and more depressing parts of lots of other places – the only difference being, I suppose, that it comprises nothing but these parts. Conceived in 1967 and developed from scratch in green fields at a cost of £1.5bn, the new town’s great and unsolvable problem is that it has no immemorial heart, no superannuated soul. It wants for layers, and therefore for mystery and concomitant charm. Yes, some people will claim, if pushed, to love it: “The trees!” they say, as if London and Birmingham have no parks at all. But their praise, when it comes, always sounds to me rather shifty, like they’re avoiding telling you that any minute now they’ll be catching a train to somewhere lovelier and more exciting.

The film-maker Richard Macer (Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue) caught a train to somewhere more exciting when he went to university at the age of 18, but a few months ago, shortly before both he and Milton Keynes hit 50, he returned, shacking up with his parents in his childhood home in order to make a documentary about the town (screened, now, as part of BBC Four’s Utopia season). As a child, he told us, he felt MK was a bit of a joke: those wretched concrete cows. But in adulthood he was sweetly protective, offering us Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Horse and the shiny travertine floors of its Grade II-listed shopping centre by way of two delights (after which he did start to struggle somewhat). In what way had the town formed him, though? This was harder to say. As a teenager, he attended a comprehensive where, once a month, pupils were invited to devote a whole day to an activity such as trampolining; every Tuesday, his family ate macaroni cheese. Basically, he might have been anywhere.

Still, I loved his film, which wove social history and memoir pretty seamlessly together. Cunningly, Macer’s voice and his camera did different things. If the former was kind and occasionally fulsome, the latter told another story. Interviewing Anthony Spira, the current director of MK’s purpose-built gallery, the narrative was all about the importance the town planners placed on culture for the masses. But beyond the window, things looked ever cheerless: another dual carriageway, yet more traffic lights. Touring the town with members of the Roundabout Appreciation Society, all the chat was of these structures’ essential beauty: those covered with greenery are referred to by fans as “Titchmarshes” and “Monty Dons”. When Macer and the others disembarked their vehicle for a closer look, however, it seemed to me they should really be known as Ballards or Burgesses (for those noted dystopians). “Wouldn’t it be nice if all cities were like Milton Keynes?” asked the TV marketing campaign for the town. Macer’s wry and quietly assertive film revealed that the correct answer to this question is still: “No, it really wouldn’t.”

How many cooking shows can a country take? It may be that we will shortly have had our fill. If the cynicism currently emanating from Channel 4, the new home of The Great British Bake-Off, doesn’t do it – Sandi Toksvig, its presenter, recently revealed that she doesn’t really care for television – then surely The Big Family Cooking Showdown will. “Be nice or leave,” said a sign in the home of one of the families competing in the first episode, a decorative fixture that might just as well, alas, have been a stage direction. Everyone is just so bloody kind: not only its presenters, Zoe Ball and Nadiya Hussain, who spend their time hugging everyone and everything, but also its judges, the cookery teacher Rosemary Shrager and the chef Giorgio Locatelli. Do the latter have chemistry? No. Shrager is a bit too mistress-at-St-Trinian’s for that. But in his Klein-blue jacket, Locatelli, at least, is a sight for sore eyes: a majestic loaf of artisanal sourdough compared to the plastic sliced white that is Paul Hollywood.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear