Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is animation from another planet—or rather from an untethered and seismic asteroid on a collision course with contemporary assumptions about the form. Simultaneously personal and universal, intellectually challenging and a crowd-pleasing entertainment, Sita (like a handful of other recent animation efforts including Waltz with Bashir and Persepolis) is a brilliant example of how cheap, off-the-shelf graphics software is enabling individual voices to challenge the factory-driven model that has dominated commercial cartoon content for so very long. With Sita, Paley brings the same, highly specific and very personal vision we associate with the best indie and alternative filmmaking to the animated form, and the result is riveting. Theatrical prospects are an afterthought, but Paley’s in it for the art and Sita is already widely viewable and downloadable for free online, where Paley has given it to the world under a Creative Commons license that makes you as much a copyright holder as she is (you’ll find a viewable copy of Sita on Paley’s website here). Sita is already finding a very wide audience over the web, but its sumptuous pleasures were made for the big screen.
Anyone who cares about what’s next, as opposed to what’s next from Pixar or Dreamworks, needs to see this movie, and to have their assumptions challenged. A wry autobiographical musical, Sita tells parallel stories, one painfully personal and the other epic and therapeutic. In the frame narrative (animated in a clean, cartoonish style that will be familiar to readers of Paley’s long-running LA comic strip “Nina’s Adventures”), Paley tells the story of the break-up of her marriage after her husband traveled to India for work and decided not to come back. There’s a great deal of humor in these vignettes, but also a lot of pain, including excruciating scenes in India after Paley travels the vast distance to be with the man she loves only to finds his love waning.
In real life, when the break up came, Paley found an odd kind of solace in two sources. The first was the Indian religious epic the Ramayana, and especially its tale of the faithful Sita and her betrayal by Rama, her warrior lover. The second was the recordings of an obscure 1920s jazz vocalist named Annette Henshaw. In the story within a story, Paley—a self-taught animator and Adobe Flash aficionado—combines Henshaw’s recordings, the sad story of Sita’s misadventures and cut-out figures that simultaneously recall Indian religious art and Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop. All these form a unique hybrid of found artifacts, blended together to create a deeply engaging and entirely individual map of a perilous emotional state—an idiosyncratic cartography of one woman’s soul.
The brilliance of Paley’s achievement is both graphic and structural—she has not only given Sita the visual specificity of a museum-grade gallery painting but also the intricate and inimitable voice of a classic Modernist novel. And think about this: with the exception of one battle scene in which Paley was assisted by animator Jake Friedman, every frame in this feature length movie was created by a single person. Watch the endless cascade of names in the end credits to Wall-E or How to Train Your Dragon again to get an idea of just how revolutionary a film like Sita is.
The excellence of Paley’s conception was apparent even when Sita was a work in progress, and it should be mentioned that I programmed two excerpts from Sita into an animation series I curated several years ago, where they received their theatrical premieres, and also that I met Ms. Paley at that time. Her work had preceded her, however, and our brief but highly enjoyable encounter came out of my deep admiration for what she had already accomplished, rather than the other way around.
Sita, like most of the good things in life, will not be to every taste. But don’t let anybody kid you. Avatar isn’t either.
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Nina Paley
Cast: Annette Hanshaw, Reena Shah, Sanjiv Jhaveri, Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally and Manish Acharya.
Genre: Animated musical
Running time: 82 min.
Release date: Decemer 25 NY, February 11 ltd., April 23 LA