Saturday, February 28, 2009
Sita Really Sings
Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues is the kind of film that a major studio would never make, and that's exactly why it's so valuable. On the face of it, a film that combines at least four different design styles, Indian mythology, a commentary on that mythology, 1920s jazz, and autobiography is a commercial train wreck. No one in Hollywood would ever give this a green light or even invest in developing it. That's because in a studio setting, the large number of people involved threaten to pull a film apart. Studios seize on the generic because it's the only thing that everyone can agree on; idiosyncracy rarely survives the Hollywood process.
The jumble of elements that make up Sita work because they're all from the mind and hand of one person: Nina Paley. The story is inspired by her own experience of being dumped by a boyfriend, and the parallel mythological story reflects the misfortune that men often judge women by mysterious or impossible standards. The three on-screen commentators relate the mythology while questioning the characters' motivations and actions from a modern perspective. The celebration and heartbreak of romance are portrayed through musical numbers sung by Annette Hanshaw, a jazz vocalist of the 1920s whose natural delivery and sense of swing continue to make her work appealing.
The film is fun. That needs to be said as the subject matter implies a gloominess that isn't there. The bounciness of the music, coupled with an open design style, keeps the tone light. The looseness of Paley's design for her own story also prevents it from being depressing while allowing the disappointment to come through. There's a good amount of visual and verbal wit at work here.
Animated features are slowly crawling out of the family film ghetto. Think about what we've witnessed in the last few years: Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir, Idiots and Angels and now Sita Sings the Blues. There has never been a time with so many personal animated features. Ralph Bakshi pioneered with Heavy Traffic, but nobody followed him until recently.
Paley is taking things a step further, trying a new distribution model as well. She'll be making the film available for free downloads under a Creative Commons license after it airs on March 7 (at 10:45 p.m.) on WNET in New York. She's made Sita merchandise available. She's also taking donations, trying to pay the almost $50,000 she needs to clear the rights to the music so that the film can be exhibited commercially. She's over 15% of the way there.
If you watch the film, why not kick in at least what you would have spent on a DVD rental? After seeing Sita Sings the Blues, my feeling is that the sooner Nine Paley can start her next feature, the better.