Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Free Review: Sita Sings The Blues

(Free Reviews is going to be my hopefully somewhat regular column for reviewing stuff you can get for free, legally. Now ideally this would only include things that are free of any copyright, but unfortunately that would be a bit difficult, so I will include anything you can watch, read, hear, or otherwise enjoy for free, no matter what type of copyright arrangement the creators put on the work) 

Sita Sings the Blues.
An animated feature by Nina Paley.

Can be downloaded in full HERE, or at any good torrent-site, or viewed through streaming HERE.
The short review: Sita Sings The Blues is a unique animated feature with a fantastical visual range and great music. Very well made, often funny, occasionally hilarious, sometimes emotional, and quite a good lesson in Indian mythology, it ultimately doesn´t live up to it´s potential because of a few minor technical shortcomings, a bit slow pace and a story that doesn´t really add up. Still not a bad way of spending 1 hour 17 minutes. Recommended. 

The long review: What do the Ramayana, 1920´s and 30´s pop singer Annette Hanshaws´s blues, and modern cartoonist Nina Paleys long-distance break-up have in common?

Not awfully much, actually, but that doesn´t stop these elements from being put together in visually breathtaking and often hilarious ways in Nina Paleys animated feature Sita Sings The Blues.

But it´s almost impossible to review this film without mentioning some of the drama around it. The film is written, animated, directed, produced by Paley alone over a period of several years, and is built up around 11 songs performed by Annette Hanshaw. While the performances are no longer copyright-restricted, Paley soon found out that the compositions were. So in a valiant effort to protect the fundamental rights of long dead composers, the music-industry-knights in shining armor have fended off Paleys grievous breach of the holy laws of intellectual property, and justly demanded a modest sum of a few hundred thousand dollars or so for allowing the commercial release of this piece of thievery. 
Luckily for us Paley hasn´t payed, and instead released the film under a creative commons license. So we can all download it. Yay for the music-industry! 

If you want to know more about the story behind the film, check out this interview

Now... back to the film.... 

Let´s start with a quick breakdown of the various elements that make up this film. First of all we have the two stories, one of the legendary Indian hero Rama and his wife Sita, and the other the autobiographical tale of Nina and her husband Dave. 
Then we have narration, which is cleverly animated over the sounds of three Indian people confusedly discussing, in delightfully Indian english, what the Ramayana is about. 
Then we have the songs, which are intercut with the plot of Rama and Sita, kind of like little funny music-videos that pop up with alarming regularity. 

All of these elements are drawn in their own distinct style. The contemporary story is drawn in loose and lively line-art close to Paleys comic-book style mixed with photos. The epic of Rama and Sita is in a painted in a semi-Indian style mixed with Indian art and photos. The narration animated with shadowy silhouettes of traditional Indian idols.  And the music-videos are done in a very cartoony flash-animation style sometimes reminiscent of the best of newer Cartoon Network productions. And these are not the only different types of art and movement in the film, so it is truly a delight for any fan of animation. 

The best part of the film is without a doubt the narration, which brilliantly mixes the confused ramblings of the narrators trying to understand the absurd mythological narrative with great comedic visual interpretations of their discussion. Anyone who has ever tried to get the internal logic of any ancient epic knows that a lot of hilarity will ensue, because quite frankly... People used tell really absurd tales. And these bewildered discussions with strong Indian accent really captures the comedic potential in a delightfully casual way.

Now this contrasts starkly both the contemporary and the epic story. You go from the delicious flow of a real conversation, to the stilted dialogue of people who shouldn´t be voice-actors delivering woody lines. 

In the modern setting Nina Paley fails to voice herself with any degree of conviction, and the lines are simply not very well written. They might be functional for a comic, but when delivered by real voices they fall flat in their simplicity. Adding to the the actor playing her husband Dave is grating to the ear.

In the epic setting the lines are supposed to be pompous and cliché, but are delivered without the passion to fulfill either it´s dramatic or comedic potential, and the Indian accents that were so charming in the narration now just lessen the impact of the epic drama.

Then there´s the music-videos... There´s 10 of them in the main movie, not counting the intro, the credit-roll, and another interesting part in the middle. All of them are the full songs, all of them are animated in the same charmingly minimal flash-style. And while they all are full of creativity from beginning to end, there´s just too many of them, and they go on too long, so no matter how creative and clever and funny they are, at times it´s difficult to keep paying attention. 

This does not, however, keep the best of the music-videos from being the absolute highlights of the movie. My personal favorite was the incredible battle of an army of monkeys against a horde of daemons, set to the sound of "Who´s that knockin´at my door?". Quite brilliant in all it´s cheerfully bloody glory. 

But still, the constant music-videos combined with a bit of general sloppiness in editing down the story to it´s basic elements, and, actually, a bit of sloppiness in the editing of the film as well, makes the whole experience a bit slow, and I was left with a feeling that 1 hour and 17 minutes... might have been half an hour too much. 

But it´s still a pleasing experience for both the eyes and the ears, so it´s in no way a wasted 1 hour and 17 minutes.

These may seem like an awful lot of complaints, but all in all they´re just minor irritations in a fantastic visual telling of an uniquely personal story. 

The real complaint however, which keeps me from all-out praise, is that while the story is uniquely personal, it isn´t all that great.  The Ramayana, Annette Hanshaw, and the divorce might all be connected in Paleys experience, but for me as a viewer it just don´t add up. 

On closer inspection the modern break-up and the epic story of exiled love, do not parallel each other. And the more they start to drift apart, the less they add to each other. And while they both reach their satisfying individual conclusions, Sitas story more so that Ninas, in the end I was left confused and unsatisfied because I was hoping for some sort of thread to truly bind this together into a single film, instead of a series of disparate animated shorts.  

Which is a shame, because it deserves to be so much more than what it ended up being. 

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