[Editor’s note: Nina Paley is a Fandor FIX-featured filmmaker this week, which gives us good reason to replay this excellent video essay by Kevin B. Lee.]
Using something that already exists demonstrates that the universality of your theme is external to yourself.
– Nina Paley
Adaptation and appropriation are important subtexts to Nina Paley’s award-winning animated epic, Sita Sings the Blues. Paley herself became a cause célèbre among Fair Use activists seeking reforms to copyright law during her struggle to secure rights to jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw’s recordings. With this video essay, I look at how Paley took inspiration from both the tragic story of Sita in the Ramayana and Annette Hanshaw’s bittersweet torch songs to deal with her own breakup, combining them to transform her personal suffering into art. In visualizing the legend of Sita, Paley incorporates traditional Indian and South Asian art forms that were themselves creative innovations on the source material at one point in history. In doing so, Paley plugs her work squarely into a cultural history too rich to be contained by digital rights restrictions, illustrating that true art is open to all.
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Sita Sings the Blues isn’t just one movie. It’s at least four movies, each connecting with the other, using a world of images spanning 2,000 years of history and culture.
First there’s the movie of Nina Paley, as she goes through a sad, unexpected breakup with her husband after he takes a job in India. Rendered in Macromedia Flash, like most of the film, the style is that of 20th-century cartoon art, using sketch-like caricatures with unstable lines that convey the fragile emotions of her story.
Then there’s the story of Sita from the Hindu epic the Ramayana, animated in the style of Mughal court paintings. This art may look timeless, but it started in the 16th century, which is not that ancient for a story that’s over 2,000 years old. In other words, this painting style was another era’s artistic interpretation of the tale, just like this movie.
This issue of interpretation is explicit in the third story element, where three contemporary Indians debate the facts and meaning of the story. They are depicted on screen by shadow puppets, the kinds used for centuries to perform the Ramayana throughout India and Southeast Asia. But their conversation looks and feels like an episode of Mystery Science Theater or an entertainment talk show, a mix of DVD commentary and pop cultural critique. In a weird way, it falls in line with the oral tradition of the Ramayana, which itself has been passed down from generation to generation through spoken word and performance, serving the same ritualistic purpose that pop culture does today.
Lastly are the musical sequences that re-imagine Sita as a Flash animation Betty Boop, her tragedy turned to song by Jazz Age vocalist Annette Hanshaw. Why not have Sita sing the blues? Her husband is after all literally blue. These sequences combine the other three narrative modes: the heartache of Paley’s story, the epic legacy of the Ramayana, and a questioning spirit of interpretation into something that transcends all three. It’s singular, lyrical, and as pure as Sita emerging from the flames. It plays across a vast universe of audio-visual culture, ultimately dancing to its own music.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor-in-Chief of the Indiewire Press Play blog and a contributor to Roger Ebert’s Demanders column at rogerebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.