October 29, 2009

MOVIES: Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley, 2008)

This movie never had a full-fledged commercial release, but it's been playing the festival circuit for the last year or two, and is now available on DVD (or for free viewing at Paley's website).

It's an animated movie, telling multiple stories in multiple animation styles. The bulk of the story is the tragic love of Sita and Rama (tragic mostly for poor Sita, I'm afraid), a tale from the Ramayana, the Indian book of stories and legends. ("It's probably just about as true as any of the stories in the Bible," says one of the movie's narrators.) The Sita story is animated in a flat 2-D style that's somewhat reminiscent of the faux-paper-cutouts of South Park, but with a much brighter color palette -- think Persian rugs and Indian tapestries -- and characters who are much more sharply geometrically defined. Sita herself is all curves and circles, a South Asian Betty Boop.

The Sita story is counterpointed against the autobiographical story of the breakup of Paley's own relationship, and that story is animated in yet another style, a deliberately scratchy hand-drawn look.

There's relatively little dialogue in the Sita story; instead, it's narrated for us by three contemporary Indians. They get some time on-screen, and they are animated as Indonesian shadow puppets against a backdrop of figures and images from contemporary commercial art. The narrators provide much of the movie's humor, especially as they bicker about the precise details of the story; the Sita tale is an old one, after all, and none of them can quite remember exactly what part is played by every minor character who pops up.

That lack of dialogue doesn't mean that Sita doesn't have a voice, though. Her thoughts are expressed in song, using late 20s jazz/blues recordings by Annette Hanshaw; we hear Sita sing standards like "Mean to Me" and "Lover Come Back to Me," along with relative obscurities like the delightful "If You Want the Rainbow, You Must Have the Rain."

Whichever story is being told, whichever animation style is being featured, Paley's storytelling is crisp and witty, and she's very clever at finding ways to turn the limitations of her chosen styles into advantages. She gets some nice visual punchlines, for instance, from the fact that Sita and her fellow characters can't really move towards us or away from us, only side to side in the same plane. She's constantly surprising us, whether with the cold bluntness of the breakup e-mail sent by Nina's boyfriend, or with an intermission during which her characters sneak out from behind the movie screen to use the restroom or run to the snack bar.

Sita Sings the Blues is a delight, a charming take on an old story that is probably unfamiliar to most Americans (it certainly was to me). And since it's not going to cost you anything to watch it, you don't have any excuse not to, do you?

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