Sita Sings the Blues (2009)
Animated film by Nina Paley
Studio: FilmKaravan.com VIDM0001
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 color
Audio: English PCM stereo
Extras: Commentary track with Nina Paley and an unidentified person
Length: 82 minutes
This enchanting animated film was directed, written, produced, designed and animated by syndicated comic strip artist Nina Paley, who turned herself into a one-person movie production studio for three years to do it. One of the many seemingly incompatible threads mashed together in this film are blues and torch songs recorded in the 1920s by one of the first popular white jazz singers, Annette Hanshaw, known for her Helen Kane imitations. Annette made many recordings and was in a film. She was regarded as an equal of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith; when I first heard her on the soundtrack I thought it was Ruth Etting, never having heard before of Hanshaw. Paley evidently thought since these recordings were so old she didn’t need to concern herself about copyrights, but found after the film was finished that the songs – by well-known Tin Pan Alley writers and composers – were still under copyright. She went into debt an additional $50,000 to clear the licenses. She eventually received a Guggenheim grant. The notice on the DVD box reads: “Copyleft 2009 by Nina Paley. All Wrongs Reversed.”
Sita Sings the Blues mixes many completely different styles of animation, two different story lines, and various storytelling devices. It is basically a very abridged version of the ancient East Indian myth The Ramayana, in which the supposedly perfect Prince Rama falls in love with the beautiful Sita, who is then kidnapped by a multi-headed demon. Rama is aided by the monkey-god Hanuman and his monkey friends and rescues the brave Sita from the island where she is held, battling all sorts of terrible demons. But after getting Sita back Rama doubts her purity and rejects her. She still loves him but basically says to hell with you and becomes one with the earth.
The characters of the Ramayana are illustrated via Flash animation by Paley, which is very neat and precise, but of limited motion, sort of like cut-outs. Sita is curvy and stylized in one of her guises – an Indian Betty Boop, swinging her ample hips and expressive face in sync with the 78s of the songs sung by Hanshaw. Paley invited three Indian friends into the studio to talk about the characters of the Ramayana. Their unscripted comments (they don’t know the story much better than we do) make a hilarious accompaniment to the images, and are delivered by three Balinese shadow-puppets at the front level of the screen, with the Indian images behind them. Their Indian accents add to the humor. The images when Sita isn’t singing the blues are given appropriate instrumental Indian music accompaniment.
Now hold on. As if the above wasn’t enough to occupy your thoughts watching this film, Paley break away occasionally from the Ramayana tale for her own very personal story of being similarly rejected by her lover. She and her husband are in San Francisco – illustrated in an entirely different squiggly animation style similar to the Dr. Katz TV series. He gets a job in India and stays there. She goes there to be with him, but when she has to make a trip back to New York he emails her not to come back. My only beef with the film is that no reason is ever given for her rejection, as it is for Sita’s, absurd as that was. Otherwise the blending of Paley’s own emotional ups and downs with those of the woman from ancient Hindu mythology is quite successful.
The super-imaginative jumping around and blending of various styles is part of the charm of this delightful film – made all alone by a budding filmmaker whose previous film was only four minutes long! All the animation is as far as one could get from Disney, and the music is wonderful. (I may even order a Hanshaw reissue CD for myself.) The film has won all sorts of film festival awards, and fully deserves them. Roger Ebert said he was smiling from one end of the film to the other.
– John Sunier