Sita Sings the BluesReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/01/09 14:00:00
Although the first four months of 2009 have proven to be the usual mixed bag of studio dumps, brain-dead crapola and the occasional pleasant surprise, it has unexpectedly proven to be an unusually strong period for fans of off-beat animation. Right at the beginning of the year, there was “Azur & Asmar,” a dazzling fantasy adventure that has just been released of DVD under the title of . That was followed a month later by “Coraline,” Henry Selick’s eye-popping stop-motion animation adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s young adult book that already feels like an instant classic along the lines of Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Now we have “Sita Sings the Blues” and what a madly inventive and visually spectacular work it is. The fact that a film this bold and adventurous can even exist in a time when even the independent filmmakers are less likely to find themselves experimenting with concept and form in the hopes of scoring a distribution deal is a cause for celebration and perhaps the only thing more stunning than the film itself is the fact that it was essentially made by one person, Nina Paley, working on a computer on a labor of love that, in terms of originality and style, puts the likes of such behemoths as “Bolt” or “Monsters Vs. Aliens” to shame.The spine of “Sita Sings the Blues” is an ancient Indian text known as the Ramayana, an epic story that tells the tale of the romantic triangle that develops between Prince Rama, his beautiful wife Sita and the hateful Ravana. As it begins, Rama is banished from his kingdom by his father and is joined in his forest exile by steadfast and true Sita. Alas, the evil and lustful Ravana kidnaps Sita and informs her that she will either submit to his depravations or die. Naturally, she chooses the latter and steadfastly waits for Rama to rescue her from death or a fate worse than death. Aided by the monkey prince Hanuman and his army, Rama discovers where Sita has been taken and in the ensuing battle, Ravana is slain and Sita is returned to her beloved husband. Alas, Rama is convinced that Sita may have been untrue to him during her time away and when nothing that she does can convince him otherwise (especially when it is discovered that she is pregnant), she is banished to the forest forever but even then, her devotion to her husband is not to be denied.
Although an entire movie could have easily been just out of this tale and nothing more, there are plenty of extra elements that have been added to the mix as well. For starters, there is a contemporary plot thread featuring Paley herself as an animator whose life is turned upside-down when her husband is sent to India for six months as part of his job--when the period is extended by another year, she goes off to join him and when she leaves for a few days, she receives a message from him telling her that their relationship is over. Then there are a trio of contemporary Indian commentators, portrayed on the screen as shadow puppets, who offer up their own explanations and annotations of the scenes from the Ramayana that we are watching and even point out some criticisms of the text (“You know, if Sita had just gone off with the monkey, a lot of lives would have been spared.. .”) Finally, during some of the Ramayana sequences, the film explodes into a full-on musical as Sita voices her thoughts and feelings through the recordings of 1920’s jazz artist Annette Hanshaw in a manner that suggests a cheerier version of what Dennis Potter used to do in the likes of “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Singing Detective.”
Just from reading the above, some of you may be under the impression that “Sita Sings the Blues” is some kind of interminable slog--what might have happened if someone was forced to slap together a multi-media presentation using only an old Indian text, a collection of “Cathy” cartoons and the contents of your great-grandparents record collection. That is anything but the case here and in fact, this is one of the most blissfully entertaining and likable films that you are likely to so this year. The conceit of the film is surprisingly engrossing--the Ramayana tale is always engrossing, the modern material does a quietly effective job of restating the story in a contemporary milieu and the comments from the trio of story analysts are frequent hilarious. Visually, the film is stunning throughout--the Ramayana sequences do an incredible job of creating a look that simultaneously evokes period drawings with that of the old Betty Boop cartoons of the 1930’s. There is also a lot of visual and verbal humor on display throughout that keeps viewers on their toes--so much so, in fact, that without revealing exactly what I mean, I can tell you that the intermission seen here is easily the funniest such thing seen in a film since “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Finally, there are the incredible songs from the virtually forgotten Annette Hanshaw that are on display throughout. I am fairly confident that going into to this movie, virtually none of you will have heard of her before but I am also fairly confident that when you finish watching it, you are going to do anything you can to acquire some of her music for your collection.I first saw “Sita Sings the Blues” last fall when it appeared at the Chicago International Film Festival and for a while, it appeared that it might never be seen outside of the festival circuits--by utilizing the Hanshaw recordings in her film, Paley infringed on their copyrights and the people who owned said copyrights demanded a payment for their usage that she simply couldn’t afford. Happily, that situation has been more or less worked out and the film begins its commercial run with a week-long booking at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. At the same time, however, Paley took the extraordinary step of making the film available for free download for anyone interested in watching it. Obviously, the best way to see this film is with a large and appreciative audience (the kind that it enjoyed last week at Ebertfest), but for those who don’t have access to a strong independent theater willing to take a chance on such an oddball project, I would like to direct you to www.sitasingstheblues.com so that you can have the opportunity to check it out for yourselves. Regardless of the size of the screen you are viewing it on, “Sita Sings the Blues” is a treasure.
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