400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Of the 100 or so new movies I've seen so far in 2009, only two of them have been great, and both of those have been animated. The first was Henry Selick's Coraline (111 screens), about which you've no doubt heard. The second one has been quietly playing on a few screens around the country and it opens this week at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco. Oddly, if you go to the film's official website, you'll find that it's also available for free streaming or download, and you can request that your local PBS station broadcast it. You can also order DVDs -- when they're finished. The film is not in 3D, it's not CGI-animated, and it has no fart jokes. It's Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues.
Billed as "the Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told," Sita Sings the Blues is based on the epic Ramayana. It tells the tale of Sita, who falls in love with the king's son Rama. Rama is banished from his kingdom for 14 years, and Sita accompanies him; they make the best of their life in exile. Unfortunately, an evil multi-headed king kidnaps Sita. Rama eventually rescues her with the help of a monkey-man called Hanuman, but he can no longer trust her "purity." Paley does not adapt this story literally. Rather, she takes several, simultaneous approaches, with several different artistic styles. In one version, Sita lip-syncs to old records by jazz singer Annette Hanshaw and magically, the songs ("Lover Come Back to Me," etc.) fit exactly.
In another version, Paley animates what look like some centuries-old Ramayana plates, giving the characters moving mouths and eyes. Another version is shown mostly in silhouette, with three Ramayana scholars -- Aseem Chhabra, Bhavana Nagulapally and Manish Acharya -- debating the inconsistencies in the story and its various tellings and translations. There are a few purely poetic, Fantasia-like interludes as well as a comic "Intermission," in which characters buy popcorn and Sita uses the bathroom. Finally we have Paley's own story. Nina is living happily in San Francisco with her loving boyfriend Dave and loving cat, when Dave takes a "temporary" job in India. The twisting, heartbreaking story winds up with Nina discovering and taking solace in the Ramayana.
All these segments zip by in a mere 82 minutes, but what I love most about the film is the way it combines an intellectual deconstruction of the story with genuine emotional ecstasy and turmoil; it's as if all the different segments somehow meet in the middle with a satisfying click. And -- as anyone can see from the available movie stills -- the film has a dazzling look and a breathtaking use of color. Unlike most animated features that are created in a vacuum, you can almost actually taste the air in this one.Though we haven't been in touch in years, I knew Nina fairly well back in the 1990s; we met through a writer/musician friend, and she was already publishing her "Nina's Adventures" comic strip in the local papers. What I admired most about that strip was how Nina transferred her personal life nearly naked on the page. If she had a terrible breakup, it went in the strip. If she had her tonsils out, it went in the strip. If she suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, it went in the strip. Even if she was feeling horny, it went in the strip. But I can say that even if I had never met its maker, I'd still recommend Sita Sings the Blues as a staggeringly brilliant, astonishingly imaginative feature debut. I know Star Trek is big on the agenda this week, but make some time to seek this one out as well.