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A monumental achievement for Nina Paley, and a bloody good time for the rest of us
There are some movies that cannot be viewed separately from the story of their making - 'Citizen Kane', 'Apocalypse Now', virtually anything directed by Werner Herzog - and I feel that 'Sita Sings the Blues' is one of them. To put it mildly, Nina Paley has completed a Herculean task by making this film: 82 minutes of animation, fluid and beautiful, in four different styles, all on her own, on her own personal computer. For that fact alone, 'Sita' is a marvel.
The picture leaks creativity at the edges. This is readily apparent even in the basic idea of it - the Ramayana of Valmiki, with songs by '20s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw as the singing voice of Sita, intercut with the India-related breakdown of the creator's own marriage, which paralleled Sita's, narrated by three 'Desi' English-speaking Indians that can't agree on the details or the motivations of the characters and analyze the story constantly and hilariously as they tell it. And all of it is animated.
The animation is, like the rest of the movie, bursting with life. There are four styles, each used for a different story thread - a cardboard-cutout style for the narrated bits and hallucinatory interludes; a scratchy, Richard Condie-like style for the autobiographical bits; a Mughal miniature-like style for the traditional Ramayana bits; and a tweening-heavy vector graphics style for the song-and-dance Ramayana-meets-the-Jazz-Era bits. The first two thirds of the film establish which style is used for which story very firmly, making transitions and digressions easier for the audience to handle - a glimpse of a scribbled New York prepares us for autobiography, colorful rooftops for a Ramayana segment. Thus the picture's leaping about becomes almost natural after a while, and is never jarring. Also, laying down these ground rules pays off toward the end of the movie, when Paley starts to break them: this grabs the viewers' attention and sets the audience on alert when voices that we've been conditioned to expect while looking at cutouts intrude upon Flash animation. In short, Paley makes sure transitions aren't jarring so she can jar us with them later, to good effect.
For example: at one point in the movie, the three Indian narrators tell us of a trick by an evil king to lure Rama away from his wife Sita so that the king can kidnap her while he is gone. We watch the plan hatched in cardboard-cutout style. We see it executed in Mughal miniature style. And we see the actual kidnapping occur during a Hanshaw song in the vector graphics style. Rama learns of his wife's disappearance in . . . Mughal miniature style. You, watching this, can never truly be impatient because you want to see what the screen will do next. That is high praise for a filmmaker.
Most importantly, of course, the film is hysterically funny. The most humor (at least for me, as a Pakistani who gets the in-jokes) flows from the narrators, who try to remember the old story as they go along, discuss it, question its logic, think better of questioning its logic ('Don't challenge these stories!') and generally provide non-stop entertainment before the plot - which, really, is hardly a narrative masterwork - can move along. There are also several satirical barbs directed at the Ramayana as the behavior of Rama and Sita grows ever more unrealistic to twenty-first century listeners, what with sexism and vague motivations, but only the prickliest devotee can claim offense. The movie is, above all, good-natured - although Paley really is very VERY angry at that husband of hers.
Just a note for anyone that understands Urdu or Hindi: the bizarre three-minute intermission halfway through the movie is the funniest part of the film due to one remark by what can only be a middle-aged auntie in the movie theater about the nature of the 'picture'. Keep your ears picked as the countdown ends. Trust me. It's easy to miss.
Why only an 8, then? Reading what I've written, I sound absolutely ecstatic. But then, 9 stars for me is only for classic material, and I don't think 'Sita' is quite that. This is no masterpiece. It's just a thoroughly enjoyable movie that bursts with innovation and - pure and simple - irresistible style. Not enough filmmakers these days make movies that need to be 'pulled off'. Making 'Sita' cannot have been a safe or easy choice. Hats off to Nina Paley.
By the way, due to copyright restrictions on the Hanshaw songs, Paley has been unable to release the film in the traditional way (for profit), and is giving it away for free on her website. Go watch it, and be sure to thank her afterwards.
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