Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nina & Sita

(Note: Since this post keeps getting more comments, and because the subject could use a little more air-time, I've moved this back to the front page. I hope you see it and add to the discussion! -C.)

How in the name of Rama do I describe Sita Sings the Blues? For starters, it's a dizzyingly imaginative retelling of the classic Hindu text The Ramayana. (Pause while I pretend to have always known what that is.) It's a semi-autobiographical tale of heartbreak from writer-director Nina Paley. It's a testament to the enduring value of cultural ephemera ranging from the Jazz Age to traditional (pre-Pixar) animation. It's a provocatively subversive take on patriarchal society, women's roles, and all that is sacrosanct. It's a fascinating case study in copyright law and the possibilities for online reincarnation.

Perhaps the best method of description is the old-reliable "cross-between," as in: Sita Sings the Blues is a cross between Monty Python's Life of Brian and Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven. The film's Pythonesque vibe is my own observation (though I'm sure I'm hardly the first to have noticed it), and is most explicit in the sections narrated by three shadow puppets (voiced by Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya), who tell The Ramayana -- a tragic love story about Sita, the beautiful wife of Prince Rama, who is kidnapped by an evil demon king, rescued and then ultimately rejected by her husband, who suspects she is now "impure" as a result of her abduction (isn't that always the way?) -- not in the somber tone of John Huston's adaptation of The Bible or George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told but informally and irreverently, interrupting each other and disagreeing on the finer details. But it was N.P. Thompson, a film critic whose tedious rantings I normally have no use for, who perceptively noted the similarities in Paley's use of Annette Hanshaw's moody 1920s jazz solos to Potter's (and Herbert Ross's, in the 1981 movie version starring Steve Martin) employment of Depression Era songs in Pennies from Heaven. Periodically the movie stops for musical interludes synching Hanshaw's vocals to the animation, and it's in these sequences that Sita Sings the Blues becomes wildly original and emotionally resonant, much more so than had it gone the usual route of splashy Bollywood numbers.

Nina Paley clearly is out to challenge myths like The Ramayana that reinforce gender stereotypes and self-justify male dominance along with female servitude, and at times the movie is almost as bracing to watch as would be a musical revival of The Satanic Verses. (Hindu extremists have been angered by the film.) Yet what saves Sita from being unduly flip is the connective tissue Paley finds by paralleling the story of Sita and Rama with that of a contemporary married couple -- Nina and David -- whose relationship disintegrates when David leaves Nina in New York and embarks on an extended trip to India. (Cruelly, he breaks up with her by email.) Paley is hardly the first filmmaker to attempt to modernize a sacred text (and piss off people while doing it); but she achieves the thematic parallels between Nina's story and Sita's through a pop sensibility -- rather than avant-gardism -- that makes the ancient relevant.

As if courting religious controversy weren't enough, Sita Sings the Blues also became embroiled in a complex copyright skirmish involving the use of Hanshaw's songs, of which the long and short of it left the film without a theatrical distribution. Sita might have vanished entirely if not for critical championing by not only Thompson but Roger Ebert among others. (Anyone who still finds Ebert irrelevant these days needs to think again.) Fortunately, for us if not her pocketbook, Paley has made the film in its entirety available online. It's a joy to behold, and pure in any form.


Jamie S. Rich said...

I need to watch this. Thanks for the link! I was a fan of Nina's comic strips back in the 1990s.

Craig said...

Thanks, Jamie. I know nothing about comics, so it's good to get background info from someone who does. Will be curious to know what you think of the movie.

robin.m.katz said...

If the Nina/Dave story line was stronger and if the ending were slightly more narrative-driven (at the end, she relies on the jazz songs too much), this would be the perfect movie. Even so, it is still very, very good. I really enjoyed it, thanks for the recommendation!

Jamie S. Rich said...

Having finally sat down with this on a recent plane flight, I have to say I really enjoyed it, but agree with Robin's criticism. I thought the modern storyline was really lacking and could have been fleshed out and better integrated. Still, a lovely piece of animation.

In terms of Nina's comics, her strips were much more along the lines of the autobio elements of the Nina/Dave story, including much cat action. A quick peak at Amazon suggests none of it is really in print--though apparently Sita is coming to DVD in a couple of weeks.

Craig said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Jamie. I agree that NIna/Dave could use one more scene and Sita one less jazz number.

On another site, I read an interesting critique that accused Paley of egotism and ethnocentrism, i.e., using the Ramayana to serve her own needs, and insulting an entire culture along the way. Anyone have any thoughts on this?

stephen said...

Hi, this is a great review. I enjoyed the film but not as much as you clearly did.

I've been writing some posts on animation recently and I was wondering if I could link to your piece here as part of a post of links to climax 'Animation Month'.

It would be good to create a mini hub of discussion about a part of cinema that is still under-discussed.

Thanks, and I'm honoured that you've linked to me on your blogroll.

Craig said...

Thanks, Stephen. Of course. Link away.

Stephen said...

Thanks Craig. The post will be up in a week or two if you're interested.