Judge Clark Douglas often sings the Greens.
The greatest break-up story ever told.
In more ways than one, Nina Paley's animated musical Sita Sings the Blues is one of the most unusual and charming films I've seen in quite some time. You're probably not familiar with Paley, but if the world is a just place you soon will be. She wrote, produced, directed, and animated this film herself, and as we watch we are witnessing the result of many, many, many hours of hard work. Fortunately, the end result is a delight.
To explain the story being told, I must first explain a little bit more about Paley's life. In 2002, Paley's husband Dave landed a job in India. Initially, the job was to last six months, but it turned into a more long-term thing. So, Nina moved to India. After she had settled in, she took a business trip to New York, where she received a message from Dave telling her not to come back. Nina was understandably heartbroken, and shortly thereafter began to feel a deeper connection to the Indian epic story of the Ramayana, the tale of another failed relationship. Paley had been an artist for years, producing both comic strips and animated short films, but felt it was time to take on her first feature.
Why is Paley's real-life story relevant to reviewing Sita Sings the Blues? Because it's very much a part of the film itself. The film provides its own colorful version of the Ramayana, interspersing animated scenes from the story of Paley's life. Perhaps the movie was made as a form of therapy for Paley, but the end result does not feel like a self-indulgent in-joke. This is a charming, accessible film that humorously explains what has historically been regarded as a somewhat challenging story to grasp. However, Sita Sings the Blues is not so much a story as an experience.
Truth be told, there's only enough plot to fill a half-hour. It's a simple story about a man named Rama who attempts to rescue his lover Sita after she is kidnapped by a villainous man. That's okay, because the movie only spends a half-hour developing the plot. The film is largely comprised of delightful asides, gleefully flitting this way and that into a variety of different animation styles and tones. This truly is a movie in which it's more or less impossible to know what's around the corner at any given moment.
All of the animation is very simplistic, but never grows wearisome or bland. This is partially due to the way the film quickly shifts between an assortment of styles. During the musical scenes, all of the characters have a round, cartoonish look and wildly out-of-proportion features (Sita has an impossibly thin waist, impossibly big hips, and breasts that look like full moons pinned to her chest). Other scenes feature a slightly more "realistic" look, drawn with colored pencils. The modern-day scenes featuring Nina and Dave are done in that quivering "squigglevision" style (ala Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist). In addition, there are quite a few moments in which a panel of unscripted narrators appear as shadow puppets to provide various bits of historical background information and argumentative commentary on the motivations of the characters.
Now, about the music. The songs featured in the film are not original compositions, but rather tunes performed by 1920s singer Annette Hanshaw. Such songs may initially seem a very peculiar choice for such a distinctly Indian film, but they're thematically appropriate. Paley discovered the music of Hanshaw shortly after her break-up, and felt the melodies would be an ideal means of allowing Sita to express her feelings about her on-and-off relationship with Rama.
The film is being distributed in a particularly unusual way: it costs absolutely nothing at all to see it. Yes, you heard me correctly. At this very moment, you can go to sitasingstheblues.com and watch the entire movie absolutely free of charge. In addition, Paley has given anyone and everyone permission to host showings of the film and use clips in just about whatever manner they see fit. So, you really have no excuse not to see it. However, you could do a lot worse than paying to own this DVD, because it provides a really beautiful transfer (the ultra-bright images just pop off the screen at times). Granted, the animation is very simple, so it's not like the movie really needs stunning detail, but I was very impressed nonetheless. The image looks quite sharp, and the audio is strong as well. Sound design is minimal, and there's not as much dialogue as you might expect, but it all comes through with clarity. My only complaint is that some of the score selections seem a bit too loud in contrast to the gentler Hanshaw songs. There are also some extras exclusive to the DVD, including an audio commentary and 30 minute interview with Hanshaw, a bonus short called "Fetch!," and a trailer.
I am tempted to tell you about more of the unexpected delights that await you in Sita Sings the Blues, but I think it's best you discover them yourself. Just be prepared to laugh and smile an awful lot, as you experience this animated world of wonder and imagination.
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