Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Rhythm of Color: Chico and Rita

Chico and Rita (Self-Made Hero) is the rare graphic novel adapted from an animated feature.A collaboration between writer/director Fernando Trueba and artist Javier Mariscal, it's an extended love letter to Havana, New York, jazz and romance itself. Indeed, the titular characters are a piano player and singer who are separated a number of times during their lives, but their romance and musical collaboration always wind up drawing them back together. The story itself is familiar and even predictable, as Chico's initial inability to stay true and later feelings of jealousy wind up wrecking the relationship the first time, while outside forces force them apart a second time. This is less a narrative than an extended atmosphere piece, and as such it has a frothy, light quality. Certainly, there are snide references to life under Fidel Castro's rule in Cuba as well as more serious narrative events related to the racism endemic in both America and Cuba in the 1950s, but those are secondary to the imagery surrounding the lights and musical magic taking place in New York and Havana at that time.

It's in those sequences where the book shines. The book's colors are vibrant but not garish or overly slick, allowing the reader's eye to fully engage them and bring the night cityscapes of Havana and New York to life. The book is especially adept at giving cities a sort of buzzing life of their own, an electricity that's felt by all involved and that sweeps them away. That buzz combines with the crackle of creativity and musical innovation to create a wave of pure pleasure; the way Mariscal draws musical venues makes the bigger halls look like cathedrals and the small clubs look like earthy, pulsating chambers of energy. The best sequence in the book is a dream that's reminiscent of the fantasy sequence in the film Singing In The Rain (indeed, the similarity is no doubt intentional). As Chico is on a boat to New York in search of his lost love Rita, he dreams jealous dreams of her dancing with Fred Astaire before he's gunned down by Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. The colors gloriously overwhelm the linework here, spilling over and becoming tangible forces of their own. There's also a frenzied quality to the drawings that's unlike the slower pace of the rest of the book, as when Fred Astaire spins Rita around until her dress pops off and she is dressed like Josephine Baker doing her banana dance.

The characters are mostly of the stock variety, with villainous and rapacious rich industry types actively working against Chico and Rita being together, a betrayal by Chico's best friend and manager, a jealous girlfriend getting in a fight with Rita, etc. Chico and Rita themselves don't get much development outside of their abilities as musicians and their magnetic attraction toward each other. They wind up getting a happy ending that in many ways reflects the ways in which American audiences "rediscovered" a lost generation of Cuban jazz musicians after the revolution of 1959 in the last decade or so (as documented in films like The Buena Vista Social Club). Chico's rediscovery leads to that happy ending, as both characters are finally free of ego, jealousy and the machinations of others. The reader feels sorry for their situation, even if much of it is self-inflicted (especially on the part of Chico) because of a total lack of communication. However, the flatness of the characters limits a feeling of being connected to them, so that final scene simply registers as a nice moment rather than an emotionally powerful one. Those moments are reserved for the fleeting and glorious moments onstage and soaking up the nightlife, as Mariscal & Trueba get across the sense of excitement and limitless possibility. The actual events of the book are less interesting than what those images suggested.

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