Friday, July 23, 2010

On Learning to See Sita Sings the Blues

Back in June of double-ought nine when I reviewed it for The Valve, I’d watched Sita Sings the Blues two maybe three times. In that review I declared it “imaginative, gorgeous, seamless, original, art.” Now I’ve watched it umpteen times, watched some segments over and over and over, stepped through some sections frame by frame, and taken a bunch of screen shots. You know what?

It’s still imaginative, gorgeous, seamless, original, art.

It just gets better and better.

But what was I thinking back then? I didn’t know what I had watched. I’m not talking about some kind of ‘deep meaning’ that has only emerged through lots of viewing and thinking – no such luck. No, I’m talking about basic superficial understanding about what takes place on screen. Here’s a list of some of the things I hadn’t grasped when I wrote that review:
  • The laundry man, Dhobi, who’s beating his wife. The significance of that event, its role in explaining Rama’s rejection of Sita, didn’t register with me.
  • The two Agni Parikshas, the one accompanied by “Mean to Me” and the later one danced and sung by Reena Shah. I didn’t recognize that Sita was rescued from the fire by Agni – heck, I’m not even sure I recognized it as an honest-to-goodness test of purity. It was just something happening on the screen and this woman was in the fire. I certainly didn’t identify these two sequences, much less understand what was going on in the second, where Sita sees and then merges with divinities.
  • There’s a sequence where the three commentators talked about Sita having her own issues, that there’s something strange about her fidelity to Rama given his treatment of her. Nor sure I followed what was going on there, what it had to do with the story, much less grasped the implications for the Nina story. I must have gotten something from it, but just what . . .
  • And those deities? Fuhgeddaboudit! Rama an avatar of Vishnu? Sita an avatar of Laxmi? Who they? Avatar – isn’t that some kind of internet thingy? Or a game thingy? & it took me a bit of digging to figure out which deity grabbed the hot dog during intermission (it was Agni).
There’s a lot of basic stuff that just whizzed by me. It’s not like I wasn’t aware of missing things. I was. And yet, still, I reviewed the film and praised it to the sky. How could I do such a thing?

Well . . . First, let’s just note that it is not at all unusual for movie reviewers to miss what’s happening in the film. Even top-shelf full-time reviewers – e.g. Robert Ebert, Stanley Kaufman – will make factual mistakes about what happened in the film. It’s very difficult to remember what happens, especially if you’ve been drawn into a film. When you’re in that state, believe me, you DO NOT want to be messing around taking notes and trying to remember things for the review. I mean, when you’re making love do you want to be taking notes on things to list in Schedule C of your tax return?

But that’s a secondary matter. The primary matter is that I missed a lot of what’s happening in the film, and yet the film still got through to me. How’s that possible?

For one thing, the most crashingly obvious thing, it looks gorgeous. Frame by frame, sequence by sequence, episode by episode, it looks good, as good as anything I’ve seen by Pixar, Sony, Disney, Miyazaki, Kon, Oshii, and, for that matter, any live action film-maker. Looking good isn’t everything, but in a visual medium, it is very important. Very.

Paley’s stylistic virtuosity is obvious in the mere look of the film. Even a blind man can see that it’s done in four distinct – no five, including the Agni Pariksha – visual styles. How many films have you seen where the artist used several distinct visual styles? Each of them works, and they all work together. It’s not hard to see that this is a brilliant and original conception.

So that’s one thing, the film’s look.

As for the story, the complications are all in the Rama-Sita story. The Nina story is obvious and straight forward. And it rings true. Yes, it’s sketchy, but somehow it makes sense. Even a partial understanding of the Rama-Sita story is enough to fill in the gags. That and those wonderful commentators. Their remarks certainly helped to fill things in even if I didn’t grasp the significance of those remarks.

And what a brilliant conception! To have these three semi-informed people filling us in on a story they’re not too clear about themselves. It’s just like, well, it’s just like watching the film itself. There’s something going on, you’re sure there is, but what it is ain’t exactly clear, and you like it. And, it gives Paley an opportunity to move all sorts of images through the background as they talk, like some NASA imagery:

Or monkeys and some flashy jewelry:

One could spend hours upon hours simply cataloguing all that stuff that Paley moves through this film while those commentators are chatting away.

What about the sound track, you say?

Yes, the sound track. That’s one thing that Paley herself did not do, but she chose the music. And there’s a wonderful variety there, with Annette Hanshaw front and center, several other flavors of jazz from old-timey to contemporary, a bit of classical, and Indian-flavored rock. The variety of musical styles complements and amplifies the visual variety.

You don’t have to get it all in order to get a lot. And, if you do want to spend more time with the film, that’s easy to do. The more time you spend, the richer the film gets.

What more could you want?


  1. I agree! The creativity that Nina's exhibited in this movie simply blows your mind. And she's done it all by herself!

  2. Well, she had a little help from her Muse.