March 10, 2009

FREE IS GOOD:

Sita Sings the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told (Tim Heffernan, 3/10/09, Esquire)

Around 400 B.C., an unknown Indian began compiling the verses of a traditional epic poem. Six hundred years later, the Ramayana was finished. It runs roughly 24,000 stanzas, and is a masterpiece.

In 2002, an American artist named Nina Paley began animating the story of Sita, the lovelorn princess at the heart of the Ramayana. Six years later Sita Sings the Blues was finished. It runs for roughly 80 minutes. And it's also some kind of masterpiece. (Don't rely on my word. Rely on Ebert's.)

I say "some kind" because the film is essentially unclassifiable. On one level, as noted, Sita is about Sita, the lovely, loving wife of prince Rama, for whom the epic is named. They get banished to the jungle, she gets kidnapped, he rescues her, and then he banishes her again. Standard broken-hearts stuff, though the monkey armies and magic arrows and ten-headed kings add plenty of flare.

But Sita is also about Paley's own brutal 2002 dumping by her then husband, who'd moved to India on business. ("Dear Nina — don't come back" read the e-mail.)

Paley tells her own story briskly, straightforwardly, and without a shred of self-pity. Sita, however, tells her tale of woe mostly through song. But not just any songs: actual 1920s-era recordings by jazz pioneer Annette Hanshaw. Amazingly, the trick works. Sita plus Annette equals musical perfection. [...]

Don't even get me started on the animation, all of which Paley did herself, and which alternately resembles Mughal miniatures, traditional Indian shadow-puppetry, a Technocolorized Betty Boop short, or a collaboration between Charles Schulz and Richard Linklater. It's brilliant.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 10, 2009 4:50 PM
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