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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The filmmaker forcing the British Board of Film Classification to watch Paint Drying for hours on end

The film does what it says on the tin.

Would you watch paint dry for several hours? If you work for the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), you might not have much choice in the matter. As a protest against problems he sees within the organisation, British filmmaker and journalist Charlie Lyne has launched a Kickstarter to send the BBFC a film he’s made called Paint Drying. It does what it says on the tin: the film is a single, unbroken shot lasting several hours (its length is determined by the amount of money raised) of white paint slowly drying on a brick wall. Once Lyne has paid the fee, the board are obliged to watch it.

“I’ve been fascinated by the BBFC – and censorship in general – for ages, but it was only when I went to a BBFC open day earlier this year that I felt properly frustrated by the whole thing,” Lyne told me. “There was a lot of discussion that day about individual decisions the board had made, and whether they were correct, but no discussions whatsoever about whether the BBFC should have the kind of power it has in the first place.”

The 2003 Licencing Act imposes the following rules on cinemas in the UK: cinemas need licenses to screen films, which are granted by local authorities to the cinemas in their area. These licences include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC age ratings. This means that in order to be shown easily in cinemas across the country, films need an age rating certificate from the BBFC. This is where, for Lyne, problems begin: a certificate costs around £1,000 for a feature film of average length, which, he says, “can prove prohibitively expensive” for many independent filmmakers.

It’s a tricky point, because even Lyne acknowledges on his blog that “this is actually a very reasonable fee for the services rendered”. The BBFC pointed out to me that its income is “derived solely from the fees it charges for its services”. So is the main issue the cost, or the role he feels the BBFC play in censorship? The Kickstarter page points out that the BBFC's origins are hardly liberal on that front:

The British Board of Film Classification (previously known as the British Board of Film Censors) was established in 1912 to ensure films remained free of 'indecorous dancing', 'references to controversial politics' and 'men and women in bed together', amongst other perceived indiscretions. 

Today, it continues to censor and in some cases ban films, while UK law ensures that, in effect, a film cannot be released in British cinemas without a BBFC certificate.

It might be true “in effect”, but this is not a legal fact. The 2003 Licensing Act states, “in particular circumstances, the local authority can place their own restrictions on a film. Film distributors can always ask a local authority for a certificate for a film banned by the BBFC, or a local category for a film that the BBFC has not classified.” The BBFC point out that “film makers wishing to show their films at cinemas in the UK without a BBFC certificate may do so with permission from the local authority for the area in which the cinema is located.” There you have it – the BBFC does not have the absolute final word on what can be shown at your local Odeon.

While the BBFC cannot officially stop cinemas from showing films, they can refuse to categorise them in any category: something Lyne says mostly happens with “quite extreme horror films and pornography, especially feminist pornography made by people like Petra Joy and Pandora Blake, but it could just as easily be your favourite movie, or mine.” This makes large-scale release particularly difficult, as each individiual local authority would have to take the time and resources to overrule the decision. This means that, to get screened easily in cinemas, a film essentially needs a BBFC-approved rating. Lyne adds, “I think films should also be allowed to be released unrated, as they are in the US, so that independent filmmakers with no money and producers of niche, extreme content aren’t at the mercy of such an expensive, censorial system.”

Does he think Paint Drying can make that a possibility? “I realise this one small project isn’t going to completely revolutionise British film censorship or anything, but I hope it at least gets people debating the issue. The BBFC has been going for a hundred years, so it’s got tradition on its side, but I think it's important to remember how outraged we’d all be if an organisation came along tomorrow and wanted to censor literature, or music. There's no reason film should be any different.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.