Nina Paley's movie is inspired by "the greatest breakup story ever told." Her incorporation of three different animation styles to tell the tale of Sita, a Hindu goddess poeticized in Ramayana, a religious text of India, makes the movie one of the greatest cinematic gems of the year. Being set to the 1920s jazz music of Annette Hanshaw makes the movie also one of the most creative accomplishments of the year that at once took the movie out of her hands and put it into the public's.
This June, a special limited edition DVD was made available on Paley's website. Only 4999 copies of the movie was pressed onto discs. Usually a number in the seven figures or far six figures is produced for DVD distribution. However, Paley can't produce more than 5000 copies of her movie. If she tries, she'll be slapped with copyright infringement.
In her movie, Paley has the recordings of Hanshaw put in sync with her animation. Paley didn't pay for the use of those recordings. She thought the songs were free and part of the public domain, which they are, but unfortunately, the actual recordings aren't. The movie has already been made and screened in various film festivals.
Paley doesn't have the money to pay the copyright infringement fees, so to avoid getting slapped with a lawsuit, she posted a letter on her website in February. The letter stated that her film in light of the copyright issues was now under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License. The Creative Commons License is a new legal form, as far as I know, that basically puts Paley's movie into the public domain.
This disqualifies the movie from the kind of distribution that would grant it national recognition. It certainly disqualifies it from Academy Award consideration. Unlike with a Disney or Nickelodeon cartoon, this movie will not be appreciated on a wide scale or even known by many.
WNET, the flagship public television station in New York, aired the film in March. The station made it available on their website to stream for free. Paley's website made the movie available for download. The movie also immediately went up on YouTube. But, sadly, most people will miss how writer, director and animator Nina Paley brilliantly uses Sita's love loss recounted in the Ramayana as a metaphor for her own, which Paley depicts in the most splendid yet bittersweet cartoon musical to come along in a decade.
Yes, this movie is an adaptation of the Ramayana, but, as we learn, it's more autobiographical. Paley's boyfriend Dave moves to India for a new job, leaving Paley alone in San Francisco with the cat. Paley tries to join him but is rebuffed, and has to settle in Brooklyn heartbroken. Paley starts to read literature from India to try to make sense of it when she discovers the Ramayana, an ancient Hindu text. She reads about a woman in it named Sita who was also left heartbroken by her husband, Rama, the man for whom the text was written.
The parallels that Paley draws between her breakup and Sita's as told through interpretations of the Ramayana, are very insightful and proves ingenious writing on her part. However, to move the narrative along, Paley found even more parallels, and in fact most of her inspiration, in the music and lyrics of Annette Hanshaw's 80-year-old blues songs.
So, Paley has three things going on. She has her breakup to tell. She has Sita's, and to make sense of it, she has Hanshaw crooning on the soundtrack. To distinguish all three things, Paley designates three different animation styles.
To tell her love loss, Paley presents Squigglevision, which is a cartoon where outlines of objects slither and vibrate. To tell Sita's story from the Ramayana, Paley uses moving Mughal paintings, and to illustrate Hanshaw's songs, Paley boasted Vector graphics where most of the objects are constructed out of circles.
In fact, Paley opens the movie with an interlude made with these Vector graphics, which she admits she edited by herself using Final Cut Pro, the same program used by WBOC, and a ton other film productions. The five minute sequence is buoyant and beautiful. It foreshadows a similar sequence at the end and another interlude two-thirds through that combines elements of Bollywood and psychedelia.
These few musical interludes don't involve Hanshaw's songs. But, make no mistake, the movie really shines when Paley is envisioning Hanshaw's words in the context of this epic from India. Front and center is her Vector graphics-version of Sita, which other critics have described as a Hindu Betty Boop, whose lips are in sync with Hanshaw's voice. The inventiveness of the visual representations of the lyrics that simultaneously express events 2400 years ago are funny and clever.
In the autobiographical, Squigglevision scenes, Paley voices the character of herself. They too are funny and clever, as well as cathartic. They also reinforce the ever relevance of the story.
However, for the Mughal painting scenes, Paley hires Indian actors to voice the characters of Sita and Rama. Despite the demons and demented things that happen to Sita, the movie is mostly comedic. No where is that more apparent than in these Mughal painting scenes, which are narrated by three Chhaya Natak shadow puppets.
The three Chhaya Natak shadow puppets each take turns telling the tale, but they can't really get the story straight. When it comes to certain facts and details, they are constantly correcting and contradicting each other. They more or less comment on the events and try to offer clarifications. But, the way they do it is hilarious. The two male puppets and one female puppet politely argue and opine while overlapping one another. It's like watching Mystery Science Theater 3000.
It's a modern take on a millennia-old story that feels fresh and lively. I've watched it now at least three times, and I plan on viewing it again. This one is a keeper, that's all!
Five Stars out of Five
Unrated but recommended for all ages
Running Time: 1 hr. and 22 mins.