Myths and legends have a way of reinventing themselves. As they travel from place to place, they're retold in new ways, with different variations and emphases that reveal as much about their teller as the characters in the story. Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues manages not only to give new perspective to the centuries-old Indian Ramayana epic, but to do so in a fun, constantly inventive way.
Made almost entirely by Paley on her Mac, the film proves that anyone with the proper skills and sensibilities can make a great-looking computer-animated feature without the mammoth staff and render farms of a Pixar production. Paley wisely avoided comparison by not trying to compete with 100-million-dollar 3D extravaganzas. Instead, she used flash to create a potpourri of style, feeding off a century of tradition to create a film entirely her own.
She repeatedly cycles through three modes, effectively telling each chapter through a discussion of the Ramayana and its various incarnations, a musical number culled from an old recording by the charming (and in most circles forgotten) 1920s blues singer Annette Hanshaw, and a parallel modern-day story of her breakup with her husband. Semi-psychedelic interludes, one with a wild roto-scoped dance sequence, punctuate the proceedings.
The three narrators, two male and one female, converse, argue and correct their way through the story. In the DVD's audio commentary, Paley explains that the audio is simply a recording of their unscripted conversation, which is both funny and enlightening. Since the three speakers are each from different parts of India, they each have different recollections of the story that they grew up on. Paley visually emphasizes their conflicting accounts by rapidly altering her cut-out collages to fit the latest version of events.
They're trying to retell the story of the noble Indian king and hero Rama and, more importantly from this film's perspective, his oft-suffering wife Sita, who is ever-loyal despite her husband's (a) distrust of her after another king kidnaps her, and (b) banishment of her because the people of his kingdom perceive her to be unfaithful. Paley's own story doesn't involve any grand castle-stormings or man-monkey hybrids, but focuses on her husband's growing distance from her after he goes away to India. The film isn't drawing direct parallels to the Ramayana so much as exploring the many emotions circling its creator's mind.
While the modern timeline plays out through wiggly-lined characters in photo-collage apartments, the ancient story appears in collage, with old-style, unarticulated cutouts floating across the screen. The narrators themselves appear as shadow-puppetesque backlit cut-outs like you might find in Lotte Reiniger's silent classic The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The musical numbers are also reminiscent of cutouts, but look more cartoonish as the expressive heroine finds her voice through an old blues singer. Paley sometimes turns the songs into cartoonish battles and, other times into poetic laments. (My only complaint is that the lip movement could have been better conceived in these segments.)
Due to the prohibitive cost of licensing the compositions that Hanshaw sings, Sita Sings the Blues almost never received a proper release. But lucky for us, Paley found a way to release the film for free over the internet, raise money and eventually distribute her film in art-house theaters. It may have been a long journey, like Sita's, but it was worth the effort.
Film Karavan's DVD of Sita Sings the Blues pops with all the movie's bright colors and fun details. The uniform colors lend themselves to compression, and there aren't any distracting artifacts. It definitely feels like the picture is delivered as intended.
At times there appears to be some banding, but I believe this is actually due to gradient effects used in Flash and not an outside problem with the transfer.
The DVD includes an English stereo track and audience-contributed subtitles in English, French, Italian and LOLSpeak (see extras section for details). This disc won't give your system a work out, but the sound is clear and well-mixed. The Hanshaw recordings sound their age, but the noise and muffled audio add to the charm.
The disc's extras are a bit redundant at times, but offer plenty of background for those curious about the Sita's background or its homegrown production. The informative audio commentary features Paley and Karl Fogel of questioncopyright.org, (where Paley served as artist-in-residence). Paley explains her motivation behind the various visual elements, including the images seen in the non-narrative interludes and how they relate to the Ramayana. She also covers the outrage some people in India have expressed over the project.
Paley also discusses how her anti-copyright beliefs grew from her work on the film. While the Hanshaw recordings are public domain, the compositions aren't, and and the exorbitant license fees on 80-year-old songs drove the director into a life of anti-copyright activism.
She has some good points, but in the 25-minute interview drills them a little too long, especially after the audio commentary addressed many of them already.
The bonus short Fetch, an earlier work of Paley's, starts off with a man, his dog and a simple horizon line, and goes on to continually distort and confuse our (and the dog-owner's) interpretation of how that line and other perspective elements relate to the characters. The gags are clever and at less than five minutes, it's a short and sweet bonus.
The trailer starts off with one of the funniest conversations between the narrators,, then launches into a montage of memorable images.
Also, if you look in the subtitles menu, you'll find an audience-contributed "LOLSpeak" translation. While "translations" like "Hooz dat noking at mai door?" are amusing, the one-note joke can't sustain itself through the whole film.
Sita Sings the Blues is a tremendously entertaining, distinct film, and while you can snatch it for free online with Paley's blessing, this DVD contains an excellent transfer and a nice set of extras to add to your library.
Jeremy Mathews has been subjecting films to his criticism since 2000. He has contributed to several publications, including Film Threat, Salt Lake City Weekly, the Salt Lake Tribune, In Utah This Week and The Wasatch Journal. He also runs the blog The Same Dame and fronts the band NSPS.