Monday, May 4, 2009

Sita Sings the Blues (2009)

Running the festival circuit, Sita Sings the Blues developed a small and loyal following, although not a distribution deal, and clearing the rights for the songs contained within is an expensive proposition. Director Nina Paley has allowed the film to circulate free on the Internet, her goal simply to get the film seen. Now it has opened at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago where it can be seen projected on the silver screen. This is a self-released animated film, the kind of very independent film that seems to have been put together by creativity and will-power alone, and well worth checking out both because of and in spite of those facts. I saw it online but would love to see it in a theater. There’s just something about being with a group of strangers, dwarfed by a screen, lost in the light it reflects, that sitting curled up with a laptop cannot replicate.

In Sita, three bickering narrators tell an ancient story from the Sanskrit epic Ramayana and are occasionally interrupted by musical sequences set to 1920s jazz songs from Annette Hanshaw which further the story and modern vignettes telling the story of a modern-day couple. It sounds complicated and dull, I know, but there’s such vibrancy, humor and wit about the proceedings, such a beautiful use of color, editing, and sound that this very old story manages to earn an emotional impact with all this hipness and artfulness adornment. This is a funky, imaginative film unlike: a true original. To say it’s like Hercules, Yellow Submarine, Betty Boop, and Spirited Away in a blender is too reductive. This is fully and totally without precedent: a funny, exciting, sad, strange and beautiful movie, one that has supporters like me (and Ebert, and Kristin Thompson, and…) trying to catch it as it falls through the cracks.

This is not a film of lush, detailed animation along the lines of Miyazaki or Pixar. In fact, the animation is simple and spare, even rough at times, but that doesn’t change its beguiling, transfixing power. The style of drawing is caught somewhere amidst Saturday-morning-cartoons, puppet shows, and cheap Flash animation but it’s put to use in such a great story and is arranged in weird and wondrous patterns and textures that I couldn’t pull my eyes away too often, even though the pace and rawness of the animation gets a little stiff in spots.

There’s great girl-power sass and hilarious irreverence to be found here, but it never drowns out what makes the inherent, ancient story so appealing. Sita is a strong, compelling character, as is her relationship with the men in her life, especially her lover Rama. The story is an interesting look into gender politics of the ancient world that Paley uses as a prism through which we can view our own conceptions of gender. This is not always a happy story and the wistful jazz melds so beautifully with the story that it’s astonishing (like all great ideas) that no one has tried this before. The final moment of the film is transcendently – though somewhat depressingly – freeing as Sita flings herself…well, I won’t spoil it except to say that it is a curiously, beautifully, sad moment that’s surprisingly satisfying.

Cultures, both ancient and current, the world over are overflowing with stories that we, by which I mean “Western nations,” have never heard. Why drag out the old stories for yet another retelling when it’s often just as satisfying, if not more so, to find stories that haven’t been told to death? Paley has done some great cultural excavation to create this film. I’ve never read the Ramayana or heard a single note from Hanshaw before I saw this movie, but now I’m wondering why it took me so long, and glad I had a chance to be exposed to them both in such an entertaining and fresh experience.

Watch it online, find it at a festival, or hope your local art house will put it on a screen. You can find all the information about how to see Sita here.

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