Sunday, March 08, 2009

Sita Sings the Blues

I heard of Sita Sings the Blues around Christmas, from this entry in Roger Ebert's blog. (If you're not reading Ebert's journal, you really should). I was ecstatic to see that it would be playing the Museum of Fine Arts in March, only to be chagrined to realize that I would be out of town at SXSW for most of it. I was planning on bailing on work early on Thursday, taking the 2:30 bus from work to get to the 4:30pm showing.

Happily, the Brattle showed it as part of its eye-opener program, in a beautiful 35mm print (you can buy one yourself at the website, if you've got a spare five grand lying around). Don't miss it.

Sita Sings the Blues

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 8 March 2009 at Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye Opener)

There's no such thing as bad publicity. Sita Sings the Blues is an extraordinary independent animated film, and while those are far from a dime a dozen, they have a tough time getting distribution and attention. Even with a glowing entry in Roger Ebert's blog, it might have disappeared. Some legal hassles over the publishing rights to eighty-year-old recordings got it a little extra visibility, and prompted filmmaker Nina Paley to forgo conventional distribution and instead make it freely available.

The main story of the film is based on portions of the Sanskrit epic of The Ramayana, specifically the parts involving Sita (voice of Reena Shah), the wife of exiled prince Rama (voice of Debargo Sanyal). She is devoted to him, dutifully awaiting rescue when kidnapped by nine-headed Ravana (voice of Sanjiv Jhaveri). Things get cold after the rescue, though, with Rama growing distant, unable to trust that the twins Sita is carrying belong to him. In the present, a San Francisco animator (voice of Jhaveri) gets an offer to work for six months in India, but is cold to wife Nina (voice of Paley) when she comes to be with him, eventually sending her an email saying not to come back when she's on a trip to New York.

This is not a definitive version of the Ramayana; a trio of shadow puppet narrators (voices of Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally, and Manish Acharya) argue boisterously while trying to recall the details, including Sita's proper name. It is, instead, Nina Paley extracting the elements of the mythology that speak to her, combining them with American blues to create something both fantastic and true, heartbreaking and tremendously entertaining. It is one of the smartest uses of mythology recently seen, removing the myth of Sita from the twin rigidities of scholarship and scripture. That the storytellers cannot agree on the details shows the power of mythology - the stories are larger than life, well-known but malleable.

Paley's respectful of the myths, but her other source is just as interesting, if an unconventional match. The late Annette Hanshaw gets the "starring" credit, providing Sita's singing voice via recordings from 1927-1929. It's a great voice to (re-)discover; she could infuse those songs with great joy and sadness. Even songs that might be happy on the surface can become plaintive as she sings them. Despite the sorrow she can communicate, there's also a wonderfully youthful innocence in her voice, making her a perfect match for the unconditionally loving young Sita. That also comes through with the way she squeaks "that's all" at the end of songs, putting punctuation to the film's musical numbers.

Those musical numbers not only have an unusual sound - much of the rest of the movie is scored with Indian synth-pop that might not be out of place in a Bollywood movie - but also a particular look. The musical numbers are slick, all round shapes pivoting off each other, looking like very good Flash animation with bright digital coloring. Sita herself is composed of perfect circles, from the palms of her hands to her breasts to her facial features; even her hair is overlapping circles. Paley uses three distinct art styles to tell Sita's story, with Sita having different character models in all of them: The circular model already mentioned, a traditional hand-drawn style as the story is told between musical numbers, and illustrations cut out of a book for the scenes with the narrators. On top of that, there's the jittery, cartoony style (with collage backgrounds) that Paley uses to draw her own experiences, and other styles used for specific scenes. It's a stylistic stew, and Paley only occasionally overlaps them, so we seldom think of the difference in style as we're watching the movie.

For all the talk of ancient mythology, classic blues, and masterful animation, what makes Sita Sings the Blues a great movie is its light touch: Paley does not particularly play for the audience's sympathy in the autobiographical segments; she recognizes that her pining for Dave doesn't paint her in the best light, and doesn't wallow. It's more about having the audience see that even today, women are vulnerable to the same bad habits as in "A Long Time Ago, B.C."

The movie is also very, very funny. The narrators argue, pointing out that a lot of trouble could have been averted had Sita taken her first chance to escape rather than dutifully waiting for Rama to rescue her. There are dancing monkeys, twenties blues set to cartoon mayhem, and funny antics with Nina's cat. There's also a hilarious three-minute intermission that breaks the fourth wall even more than the narration. 82-minute movies don't need an intermission, of course, but this one is packed with enough pure entertainment for a much longer movie, to go with its brains and beauty.

It's a fantastic movie, held up from a conventional release by copyright laws (though the Hanshaw performances have entered the public domain, the publishing rights are not). At this writing, there are still 45-odd special bookings and festivals coming up, but Paley has also made the film available, free viewing/download, or purchase at her website ( in a variety of formats (though donations are appreciated). There's nothing to lose by looking, and an amazing film to be found.

Also at EFC.

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