Meg loves YouTube. Seriously. Some gems that she has dug up and forced me to watch recently include “Chimpanzee Riding on a Segeway”, “Boogie Woogie Hedgehog”, and various renditions of “Play Him Off Keyboard Cat”, which range from awkward internet video clips to gruesome freak injuries juxtaposed with, you guessed it, a cat playing a keyboard. So when Meg posted about Sita Sings The Blues a few weeks ago, I was expecting, well, cats or at least a few cute animals.

Yeah, there are no baby animals riding scooters. But I was actually blown away by this movie, created by artist Nina Paley. It is a musical based on the Hindu epic the Ramayana, a story of the Gods Rama and Sita, and their failed marriage. In Sita, Paley weaves the story of her own failed marriage, three hysterical narrators version of the Ramayana, and Annette Hanshaws throaty, heartbreaking music into a gorgeous visual experience.

Paley utilizes drastically different animation styles in the work that could have easily felt as if they segmented the film, but seem somehow to feel inherent to the situations that they depict. In the storyline that is the rendition of her own marriage, the visuals are Sunday cartoon-like, comfortable, and very intimate, using clip-art looking props and collage environments.

This aesthetic makes the scenes in which Sita is signing the words of Annette Hanshaw, one of the first great female jazz singers of the 1920s, seem even more lush. When Annette Hanshaw is crooning, Sita is transformed into a buxom Betty Boop with huge breasts, a tiny waist, and large, child bearing hips, which sway with the music. Hanshaws hypnotic voice and the dense, smooth environment of the animation are completely charming. The original Hanshaw recordings, complete with record fuzz, scratches and skipping, coupled with the hyper contemporary style of animation serves to transcend a particular time, and simultaneously give the super current animation a rich history and the music a contemporary body.
Progressing at the same pace as the evolution of the marriage, the last part of the animation uses three narrators telling together the story of the Ramayana. I laughed out loud at some of the things that these three had to say. The narrators, seen in the style of paper shadow puppets, argue, disagree, and attempt to construct a version of the complicated classic the Ramayana. While they are speaking, Paley uses more animation styles, collage, and hand done paintings, animated herself. The three voices complicate their own telling of the Ramayana, as well as the perception of the story of Paley’s failed marriage. In that storyline, the husband is silenced, his words were written by Paley herself, and I agree with Richard and Meg in her original post, I was left really wondering what really happened in that relationship, and wish more of it had been shared.

I think that this video is smart, and I particularly enjoy the range of visual references from Kid Pix, photoshop, and DIY animation, to ancient religious scripture, and contemporary comic strips. Nina Paley also seems like a very intelligent person from the interviews I’ve read, and she gets mad props from me for making this free to everyone under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.

The film is easiest to watch on YouTube, where it is in ten segments, and about an hour long. A playlist of it can be found here. I would recommend watching it in HD, although it does take a while longer to load, at least on my slow ass laptop. The official website for the film is here.

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