Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Sita Sings the Freakin’ Gorgeous Blues
Quite possibly I first heard about Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues in a January 2008 post at Cartoon Brew. The film had been selected to premier at the Berlin International Film Festival but Paley had to scrounge up $35,000 so she could have a 35mm print made. “Fat chance,” said I to myself. But she did it and I kept reading more about Sita here and there, watching clips, getting interested. Finally, Mike “The Curmudgeon” Barrier saw it on DVD and said “It’s one of the very few animated features of the last few decades that I can recommend enthusiastically.” And he’s seen Pixar, and Miyazaki!
Yes, it’s all that: imaginative, gorgeous, seamless, original, art.
Since the DVD contains a press kit, I’ll save myself some think-write time and simply copy the synopsis:
Sita is a Hindu goddess, the leading lady of India’s epic the Ramayana and a dutiful wife who follows her husband Rama on a 14 year exile to a forest, only to be kidnapped by an evil king from Sri Lanka. Despite remaining faithful to her husband, Sita is put through many tests. Nina (the filmmaker Nina Paley herself) is an artist who finds parallels in Sita’s life when her husband – in India on a work project – decides to break up their marriage and dump her via email. Three hilarious Indonesian shadow puppets with Indian accents – linking the popularity of the Ramayana from India all the way to the Far East - narrate both the ancient tragedy and modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the epic.
In her first feature length film, Paley juxtaposes multiple narrative and visual styles to create a highly entertaining yet moving vision of the Ramayana. Musical numbers choreographed to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw feature a cast of hundreds: flying monkeys, evil monsters, gods, goddesses, warriors, sages, and winged eyeballs. A tale of truth, justice and a woman’s cry for equal treatment. Sita Sings the Blues earns its tagline as “The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told.”
Now you know roughly what Sita’s about. And if your inner geek is thinking “ancient text + contemporary story = Ulysses,” well then your inner geek’s ahead of mine, because I didn’t think that until 10 or 20 minutes into my first viewing. But I wouldn’t count that as any more than a casual observation, one with a non-casual corollary.
By the ordinary method of reckoning such things, the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome are in the direct ancestral line of 20th Century European culture, which would necessarily include Joyce’s Dublin. The same mode of reckoning sees little relationship between ancient India and contemporary America, thus both Hindu nationalists and post-colonial Theorists have been criticizing Paley’s cultural miscegenation. Alas for them, cultural miscegenation has been the way of the world since whenever and it’s only accelerating in our era.
So that’s one thing.
And then there’s the mixture of narrative and visual styles the press synopsis mentions: What about that? Well, Nina’s story is presented in one visual style and more or less tells itself. Sita’s story is presented in several different styles and much of it is told, as well, by those “hilarious Indonesian shadow puppets with Indian accents” – who seem to function a bit like the chorus of Greek tragedies. Much of the emotional burden of both stories is conveyed in Annette Henshaw’s vocals, except when it isn’t. And there are other things as well.
All of which is to say that you’ve got to be on your toes when you watch this film. You can’t just lay back and let it wash its magic over you. You have to work with it, you have to think about what you are seeing and hearing. And you have to experience it, not just as a narrative, but as, shall we say, an invocation, a ceremony.
Consider this frame, which occurs roughly five minutes into the film:
The moon-chariot is to the left, the sun-chariot to the right. They’re moving around the earth-mother in the center. This frame is preceded by a three minute sequence that presents the birth of the universe from some kind of big bang, followed by a parade of Hindu deities and then the beating heart of the universe. Now consider this frame, roughly nine minutes from the end of the film:
There is Mother Earth to the right. The small dark figure at the center is Sita, running to rejoin Mother Earth. Once again, she’s proving her purity, at least that’s what the story says. But if that’s the earth, then where’s Sita while she’s running? That’s obvious; she’s on the surface of the earth. See? Ceremony. Symbols. Myth. Also: that this image from the beginning of the film now returns at the end, as does the parade of deities, such repetition is the inner logic of ceremony. But the context now is different. As Sita goes running into Mother Earth, so – in a sense – the whole narrative follows her into this symbolic transformation.
About 50 minutes in, the action stops for a three minute intermission – long after the first appearance of earth-mother, well before the her last appearance – in which we see our players go out for refreshments and take bathroom breaks. Here we see Agni returning with a hotdog – just what kind of meat is in that dog?
Now, if you’re thinking something like “ZOMG! self-consciousness, meta-commentary, Verfremdung, postmodernism,” well of course best beloved, of course. Where’ve you been for the last hour? That train left the station during the 20th century. We’re living in a whole freakin’ New World.
Something else is going on. Just what, I don’t know. What I do know is that when the intermission’s over we see (cartoon) Nina sitting at her desk, getting dumped by email, and we hear Rudresh Mahanthappa’s alto sax wailing on the sound track and then, Wham! we’re into another domain. We hear Reena Shah singing and we see her dancing, like so:
That’s her, in outline, with whatever superimposed and peeking through. I won’t pretend those frames are representative of this three minute sequence; they’re just what I decided to grab. This is the dramatic climax of the narrative, the ceremony. And it’s different from everything else you see and hear in Sita Sings the Blues.
Yes, there is a story; it’s up there in the press-kit synopsis. More or less. But following that story, knowing who did what to whom, that’s the least of your responsibilities, or pleasures. Dare I say it, that cliché: It’s in the Journey.
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EDIT: Now that that’s written and posted, I’ve been wondering whether or not Paley has, in effect, taken the many-worlds variousness of Fantasia and deployed it in service of a single narrative. Looks like it to me.
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Here’s an interesting interview with Nina at Bordwell’s site.
Looks great. Thanks for the peek.
On my other group blog, the South Asia-focused Sepia Mutiny, we had posts on early clips from the film when it was a work in progress, going back to 2005 (Nina worked on this for a long, long time).
The earliest clips, which are roughly the Annette Hanshaw segments in the finished film, sparked a lot of controversy among conservative Hindus, who felt that Nina might be parodying their religious myth/truth. Nina had actually studied the different Ramayana narrative traditions pretty closely, and was trying hard to be respectful (in fact, Indian literature and art has long adapted the Ramayana in somewhat secular contexts; it may be a sacred narrative, but the boundaries between the sacred and the secular prove to be quite malleable).
See this post for a discussion of the various “versions of the Ramayana.” Nina herself makes some comments along the way.
As Nina ended up finalizing the film, she introduced these wonderful shadow-puppet dialogues with three Indian voices, discussing and debating their various recollections of the narrative. In effect, the inclusion of that unscripted discussion helps to offset objections from Hindu viewers: even Hindus don’t always agree on the exact parameters of the story, and many practicing Hindus don’t necessarily agree with the gendered “moral” of the story vis a vis Sita.
I’ve been plotting writing an essay about the evolution of the film, and the way it anticipates objections… it may yet happen.
Thanks for the link, Amardeep. Most interesting.
& keep plotting.
The Interwebs did influence the film. It’s complicated - there were a lot of different opinions being debated on sepiamutiny and elsewhere, and of course I didn’t agree with all of them. I was happy to discover some Indians and Indian-Americans had a similar take on culture to mine, even as others objected. I was especially aware of Manish Vij’s complaints about fake Indian accents in popular media. I would have sought Indian actors anyway, but the little voice in my head telling me to go that way got a lot louder, and became his: Jiminy Cricket Vij.
Initially I considered all objections, but after a while I came to accept that some people would be offended no matter what.
In effect, the inclusion of that unscripted discussion helps to offset objections from Hindu viewers
I believe they can have that effect, which I anticipated could be a bonus. The main reason they’re in the film is they make it AWESOME. In fact the Shadow Puppets are many viewers’ favorite parts of the movie, even more than the Annette Hanshaw numbers. But I’ve also read some very hostile complaints about those voices, from people who actively seek offense. Some even complained their accents are fake!
The Interwebs did influence the film. It’s complicated . . .
Interesting. It’s clear to me that, in order to work, art is-has to be collective. Good old Shakespeare, for the most part, based his plays on existing stories; he didn’t make them up from scratch (except for The Tempest). And he wrote for the actors in his company, so he knew who would play each and every role. And I’ll bet there was a bit of improv on stage, that things changed from one performance to the next.
Now we’ve got this idea of the individual artist going it all alone. And there is that, sorta, but it’s nothing if it isn’t taken up by public. And we’ve got film, which is necessarily a collaborative medium, and animation, even more so.
But, whatever Sita is, it doesn’t look at all like art-by-committee. There’s a strong coherent vision there. On the one hand, you did it all, but with a little help from your friends . . . .
And there is also your back-and-forth with folks through the web, whether through discussions like those at Sepia Mutiny, or through feedback on clips you’ve released.
This is all very interesting and all very healthy.
Hello again, Wm:
That may have been, in fact undoubtedly was, the most radiant, colorful, intelligent, exciting, terrific blog post it has ever been my pleasure, no, my delight and joy to encounter.
Now to view the film…
In regard to The Tempest, Google came up with the following book reference: http://tinyurl.com/yke2x62—which argues that the play was derived from current events.