Friday, July 30, 2010


From Elizabeth to Nina: Stick to Your Guns, Baby

No sooner had Elizabeth I of England ascended to the throne than the House of Commons urged marriage upon her. Here is a portion of the speech she offered in response, her first speech before Parliament, given on 10 February 1559, in her 25th year:
“. . . As concerning instant persuasion of me to marriage, I must tell you I have been ever persuaded that I was born by God to consider and, above all things, do those which appertain unto His glory. And therefore it is that I have made choice of this kind of life, which is most free and agreeable for such human affairs as may tend to His service only. From which, if either the marriages which have been offered me by divers puissant princes or the danger of attempts made against my life could no whit divert me, it is long since I had any joy in the honor of a husband; and this is that I thought, then that I was a private person. But when the public charge of governing the kingdom came upon me, it seemed unto me an inconsiderate folly to draw upon myself the cares which might proceed of marriage. To conclude, I am already bound unto an husband, which is the kingdom of England, and that my suffice you. And this,” quoth she, ”makes me wonder that you forget, yourselves, the pledge of alliance which I have made with my kingdom.” And therewithal, stretching out her hand, she showed them the ring with which she was given in marriage and inaugurated to her kingdom in express and solemn terms. “And reproach me so no more,” quoth she, “that I have no children: for every one of you, and as many as are English, are my children and kinsfolks, of whom, so long as I am not deprived and God shall preserve me, you cannot charge me, without offense, to be destitute.”*
But what, pray tell, has this to do with Nina Paley, who is not a monarch, nor even a monarch-in-waiting, but merely an artist, a cartoonist and film-maker? What has such a royal speech to do with Ms. Paley, who, after all, was once married?

Sita heads for home.
Let’s take another look at Sita Sings the Blues. At the beginning of the film, Nina is married. A bit over halfway through the film her husband dumps her: disaster. What happens then? Well, in principle, and often enough in Hollywood practice, Nina could meet Mr. Right, fall in love, get married, and move to a mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she would birth little sons and daughters of Mr. Hedge-Fund Manager. But that’s not what happens in the film, not at all.

What happens is that Nina ends up in bed, with her beloved cat, reading Valmiki’s Ramayana. No husband, no mansion, no babies. From that certain Hollywood POV, that’s No Nuthin.’ But really, do you believe that? I mean, yes, Katherine Hepburn married Cary Grant at the end of Philadelphia Story, but in real life she never married (though she carried on a long-term affair with Spencer Tracy). She had her art, and splendid art it was. That would seem to be where Nina’s headed at the end of Sita Sings the Blues, on the way to making a feature-length cartoon about her life and Sita’s, and then . . .

But where I’m really headed is to the cosmological element in Sita Sings the Blues, all the myth and ceremony. Not only does it provide the context which allows Nina’s and Sita’s stories to intermingle, as I’ve previously argued, it also supports and sustains Nina’s decision to become a self-sufficient artist, rather than wife and mom. When she was married, Dave was her link to the world; he WAS her world. Now her art is her link to the world; it IS her world. And the cosmology sustains that link.

Not that I’m suggesting that Paley takes that cosmology at face value, that she’s a Hindu. On her Facebook page Paley lists her religious views as “Lapsed Atheist.” Whatever THAT is, it’s not Hinduism, orthodox or heterodox, though perhaps it stretches to paradox. Rather, Paley uses Hindu cosmology as a way of extending her artistic vision to the edges of human experience and to the ends of the cosmos. It is a way of affirming her artistic responsibility to the world. That’s what sustains her and joins** her to the world.

Now we can return to young Queen Elizabeth. Her speech was, of course, a political act and, as such, was designed to give her room to act as she felt she must. Elizabeth stated her justification in terms of the cosmology available to her. She served her god, and the nation’s. In terms of that cosmology, she was married to that nation. The nation of England was and is, of course, a real entity, but an entity of an abstract kind.

And so it is with the cosmos to which Paley has committed herself. It is real, there really is a universe out there (and also within), but it is abstract in conception and apprehension. She has chosen, as her vocation, to make that cosmos visible, palpable, and comprehendible through means of her craft and artistry.

* * * * *

*Leah S. Marcus, Janel Mueller, and Mary Beth Rose, eds. Elizabeth I: Collected Works. University of Chicago Press: 2000, pp. 58-59.

The Sanskrit word yoga has many meanings, and is derived from the Sanskrit root "yuj", meaning "to control", "to yoke" or "to unite". Translations include "joining", "uniting", "union", "conjunction", and "means". It is also possible that the word yoga derives from "yujir samadhau," which means "contemplation" or "absorption."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Grass on a hot morning

You can find more photos of flora at my Flickr site.

Brains Couple When People Talk

Uri Hasson, a Princeton psychologist who's also done some interesting work on brain activity while watching movies, has discovered that, when two people converse, their brains become coupled. Writing in a blog at Scientific America Douglas Fields reports:
There have been many functional brain-imaging studies involving language, but never before have researchers examined both the speaker's and the listener's brains while they communicate to see what is happening inside each brain. The researchers found that when the two people communicate, neural activity over wide regions of their brains becomes almost synchronous, with the listener's brain activity patterns mirroring those sweeping through the speaker's brain, albeit with a short lag of about one second. If the listener, however, fails to comprehend what the speaker is trying to communicate, their brain patterns decouple.

. . . .

In order to find out what happens in the brain when the speaker and listener communicate or fail to connect, Hasson, an assistant professor in Princeton's Department of Psychology, and his team had to first overcome both technical problems using new analytical methods as well as special nonmagnetic noise-canceling microphones. He asked his student to tell an unrehearsed simple story while imaging her brain. Then they played back that story to several listeners and found that the listener's brain patterns closely matched what was happening inside the speaker's head as she told the story.
These results are exciting but not surprising. Back in the late 60s and early 1970s William Condon did high-speed video taping of people interacting with one another. He found, for example, that the listener's head and body movements tracked the intonation patters of the speaker's language. Interestingly enough, this was true even for neonates, their body motions tracked speech patterns of nearby speakers.

I made such interactional synchrony the conceptual centerpiece of my 2001 book on music, Beethoven's Anvil. I also reprise and extend some of those ideas in my essay-review of Steven Mithen's The Singing Neanderthals. See also my post, The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality.

Theory of Mind

Nina Paley is the creator of Mimi & Eunice and is unleashing them on the world under a copyleft license.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

From Today's Catch

Nina Sez: Invent Stuff? Who, me? Nah

You didn’t really think you’d seen the last of my interview with Nina Paley about the Agni Pariksha episode of SSTB, did you? This exerpt is from the very beginning of the interview, before we’d actually begun to talk about the Agni Pariksha. I asked Paley how much she invented in order to do Sita Sings the Blues. And, interestingly enough, she proceeded to down-play her inventiveness.

Why is that interesting? Because inventiveness and originality are supposed to be good. That's what we want from artists and scholars. I mean, second-tier thinkers and artists trip all over themselves with claims to be the first one to cross a T with a double-squiggle, or dot an I 37° right of center and here's Nina Paley being modest about her inventiveness. I suppose she's being consistent with her position that All Creative Work is Derivative, which, of course, is true. But I also wonder, is that all?
[Other excerpts are listed on this page.]
Parent-teacher conference at the local school

BB: Let’s go back a few steps. When you started this, you had already done a whole bunch of stuff of one sort or another. You’d made some short films, so you had all sorts of skills.

NP: Yes.

BB: How much did you invent in the process of doing this over five years?

NP: How could I possibly know how much I invented? How could I possibly know that?

BB: Well, a lot, a whole fuck of a lot, or a super-whole mega lot.

NP: What do you mean by invent? All I did was I took skills that I already have and I used them with ideas that are already out there. So, like, where’s the invention? Is it just like nobody but this thing with this thing, but people have put things together before. People’ve put lots of disparate things together. And in my case I just put things together that, to many people’s minds, have not been put together before. But that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been done though. It just means that I surprised people. But I don’t know if surprising people and inventing is the same thing.

BB: It’ll do.

NP & BB: Chuckle.

NP: I mean a lot of people think it’s far more original than it actually is. A lot of people, like, ‘she did a feminist Ramayana.’ There’s a huge history of feminist Ramayanas. This is not remotely original, the feminist aspect of it. And there’ve been other animated Ramayana’s, and then, OK, so, there haven’t been any Ramayana’s that put Annette Hanshaw with the Ramayana. That’s probably the most unique thing about it.

A lot of this was driven by technology. So I did things, you know, the collagy stuff and the techniques that I used, I did because they were possible.

BB: How many of those techniques did you learn in animation school.

NP: Well, I never went to animation school.

BB: If you had, how many of them would you have learned in animation school, like zero.

NP: I don’t know. Like this specific technique. Everything I did comes from. . . OK, so rotoscope is very old.

BB: Right, is very old.

NP: Flash, there’s all sorts of things that are done in Flash. Masking is a Flash technique. So this uses rotoscope and masking. The technique of combining rotoscope with different fills or different patterns on every frame. That was done in Yellow Submarine, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” It was painstakingly done because they had to actually paint every single one of those things by hand. But that technique is at least as old as that.

BB: Did you see Across the Universe?

NP: Does that have animation in it?

BB: No.

NP: What’s the point?

BB: It has Beatles tunes.

NP: Yeah, but come on. Who cares. It has Beatles tunes that are resung by other people.

Yeah, anyway, you know, grabbing images from all over the place because of the internet that turns people like me and others into criminals. Federal criminals, and soon to be international criminals.

Of course this particular combination of techniques isn’t [unintelligible] but that’s true of any piece of art.

Monday, July 26, 2010


These letters are over six feet high. The site is demolished.

Ceaze himself has gone over these. As far as I know — I haven't checked in several months — the newer Ceaze is still up.

If it's not yet gone, it soon will be. This has become a construction site.

Same as immediately above. Both are at a site known as the old chocolate factory. Condos are being built on the site.

Demolished, but construction hasn't started on the site. This is right across Newark Ave. from the above two pieces.

You can see more photos of Ceaze's work at my Flickr site.

Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 4 – The Cosmos

And then some.

It’s now time to conclude my remarks on ritual patterns in Sita Sings the Blues. Somehow.

Let’s hit the reset button and pretend that I never wrote the first essay in this series, the one where I introduce the anthropological conception of ritual and discuss the cosmological opening and closing of the film. What happens if we simply drop that opening sequence (from the opening to 5:15 and from 77:11 to the end) so that the entire film consists of Sita’s narrative, Nina’s narrative, and the Agni Pariksha. Nothing would seem to be lost from either narrative, but the relationship between the two would be reduced to mere juxtaposition and the Agni Pariksha sequence would be poorly motivated. Remember, that sequence originates from Nina’s life, immediately after Dave dumps her, and takes us back in time into Sita’s life at the point where rumors are being spread about her fidelity. How do we explain that connection?

We could, for example, imagine it being accomplished through some kind of time-travel. To do that, however, you would have to set up the time-travel tech by introducing the technology itself and by coming with a reason for it to work in just that way. That is to say, you would have to add something to the film that performs the job that that cosmology now does. So why bother when the cosmology is immanent in the mythological materials?


And just how does the cosmology perform that job? Most fundamentally, it establishes Sita as a divine being – she IS a goddess – and so she can be a model for events in the lives of ordinary women, even a woman such as Nina, who is not Indian and who is living in the 20th and 21st centuries CE. It is not simply that Nina Paley, the film-maker, points out a parallel between events in the life of film-Nina and Sita’s life. No, given the cosmological context, the connection between Sita’s life and Nina’s is much more immediate and intimate than that. That film-Nina’s life should track Sita’s life is now inherent in the structure of the cosmos rather than being a correspondence observed by some external person such as film-maker Nina Paley.

And given that cosmology, it is natural that the Agni Pariksha should be one and the same event in both Nina’s life and Sita’s. Sita established the pattern and Nina is just one of the many women who have participated in that pattern across historical time and geographical space. In that moment of purification and anguish, all are one.

Sounds sorta’ mystical & magical, you say? Yes, it does. But the cosmology is like that. It is all happening, all the time.

Lotsa Stuff

Now let’s consider an implication of this cosmology and of Paley’s use of it in the movie. Look at these screen shots, which I took from a discussion the three commentators had about how Rama and Sita got back to Ayodhya (44:19 – 45:03):

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nina Paley: A very brief hot mess

Here is yet another excerpt from my interview with Nina Paley about the Agni Pariksha episode of her feature-length animated film, Sita Sings the Blues. In this excerpt we’re talking about film Nina’s life comes crashing into Sita’s and how that’s just how Paley felt about her life and the Ramayana.

At a few of points in the interview I’ve stuck a double asterisk (**) to point out a passage where Paley seems unsure of what she’s saying, where she’s seems to be saying something more to accommodate my questions than as a report on what she actually thought. After this interview was concluded I had another, much shorter, conversation with Paley about her discomfort at talking about art in these terms. I’ll transcribe that one of these days.

[Earlier excerpts are here (1), here (2), and here (3).]

Hot tears, hot anger, hot grief

NP: OK. Ah, the eyes. Sadness. This is all about, like, crying –

BB: Crying hot tears –

NP: Yes, crying tears of flame. Um, yeah, I might’ve had the idea just that – this is a guess, I don’t know what was really happening. But, you know, Sita’s a goddess, she represents transcendent principles of suffering and devotion and like that. ** Ah, but she’s divine and, um . . . I don’t know, what was I really thinking? It’s sorta’ hard to talk in words about what this was about. I think just the idea that there’s –

BB: What about those eyes?

NP: Oh these? Well these come from, ah, I mean I’ve seen them in Tibetan art. In fact I, the apartment I lived in Brooklyn, I sublet from a friend who was in Tibet and he these Tibetan flags, he decorated it with, that were just these eyes. [too soft to hear]

BB: Is that lion from a devotional card?

NP: Oh, of course. Yes, that’s probably Durga’s mount.

Yeah, so anyway, they’re actually relating to Sita, or Sita’s relating to them. They’re all feeling this together. It’s not just Sita, it’s become a sorta’ universal activity.

BB: Well you see, the interesting thing about where this is placed in the film is that it’s right after film Nina gets the news –

NP: Yeah!

BB: - so it’s, I mean, up to that point it’s sort of Nina’s story juxtaposed against Sita. And at this point, I mean, Nina’s story plunges right into Sita’s story.

NP: That’s how I felt! That’s how I actually perceived my own life. It’s like laahaa just goin’ along, then I had this like weird crashing into the Ramayana.

BB: Yeah, I mean, so Sita’s crashing into the gods and they’re crashing into her, and now you’re crashing into that whole thing, and basically the whole universe is becoming one in this hot mess of anger and grief.

NP: [laugh] Yeah. A very brief hot mess.

BB: [laugh]

A Rip in Reality

NP: And then, you know, she blows out the flame and we go on our separate ways. Maybe that’s why you say it’s like a ritual. There is where I myself in my own experience, that like, rip –

BB: Sure.

NP: - rip in reality happened, there’s this weird intersection –

BB: That’s what rituals are about.


BB: I mean, you mark this sort of – there’s this sacred space. And we do a little ceremony and we all leave the regular world. And we go in this sacred space and we go crazy. And then, we come out, and we’re changed.

NP: Huh. This was involuntary – [both laugh] – very involuntary. And when I’ve tried, the thing about most rituals is that, they, most of them fall pretty flat on me. ‘I know this is supposed to be happening. but it’s not.’

BB: Yeah.

NP: Oh, is that it? [That is, is that the last screen shot?] No.

Sita and Sitas

NP: ** I think here what I’m trying to say is that Sita is not just one, but that Sita is –

BB: Oh yeah, this is the multiple Sitas.

NP: ** Yeah, and as the story just keeps repeating, um, and regenerating –

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Where Are Memes?

This is more a public note to myself than anything else. It’s likely to seem a bit odd to those who haven’t been following my thinking on memes. Cross-posted at A Replicated Typo.
Back in 1996 I published a long article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (link to downloadable PDF), in the, alas, now defunct, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems. In that article I introduced the notion of units of cultural inheritance with these paragraphs:
Following conversations with David Hays, I suggest that we regard the whole of physical culture as the genes: the pots and knives, the looms and cured hides, the utterances and written words, the ploughshares and transistors, the songs and painted images, the tents and stone fortifications, the dances and sculpted figures, all of it. For these are the things which people exchange with one another, through which they interact with one another. They can be counted and classified and variously studied.

What then of the ideas, desires, emotions, and attitudes behind these things? After all, as any college sophomore can point out, words on a page are just splotches unless apprehended by an appropriately prepared mind, one that knows the language. Pots and knives are not so ineffable as runes and ideograms, but they aren't of much use to people who don't know how to use them, that is, to people whose minds lack the appropriate neural "programs". Surely, one might propose, these mental objects and processes are the stuff of culture.

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist's phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype. Properly understood, these mental objects and processes are embodied in brain states (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). Thus we have the whole of physical culture interacting with the inner cultural environment to produce the various mental objects and activities which are the substance of culture.

Richard Dawkins has proposed the term "meme" for the units of the cultural genotype, but proposes no special term for the cultural phenotype, though he recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the two (Dawkins 1982, pp. 109 ff., see also Dawkins 1989, pp. 189 ff.). Following more or less standard anthropological usage, I offer "psychological trait", or just "trait", as a term designating phenotypical units or features. Note, however, that Dawkins places memes in the brain and traits in the external world, which is just the opposite of what I am doing.
I have maintained that position until quite recently, say a week or two ago. I am now considering abandoning that conception. But first, a little more about how I further developed it. 

In my 2001 book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I developed that idea with respect to music, arguing that the neural ‘trace’ (trajectory in neural state space) of musical performances is a cultural phenotype while the memes are those aspects of musical sound around which individuals coordinate their music-making activities. I further developed this idea only a few weeks ago in a series of posts I wrote as background to a post I did for the National Humanities Center on cultural evolution.

Specifically, I developed this notion using so-called Rhythm Changes as my main example (see this post, and then this one). By Rhythm Changes I mean the harmonic structure of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” The phrase itself has become a term of art in the jazz world; any reasonably competent jazz musician can jam on Rhythm Changes. In that series of notes, however, I took the further step of extending this approach to language and, by implication, to all of culture, not just music. Here’s what I said in my discussion of language:
The question before us is: How do we conceptualize the memetic elements of language? In glossing the emic/etic distinction in a comment to John Wilkins I remarked that (now I’m simply repeating that comment) the distinction originates in linguistics, in the distinction between phonetics and phonemics. The former is about the psychophysics of speech sound while the latter is about phoneme systems. These are obviously very closely related matters, but they aren’t the same. We tend to perceive the speech stream as consisting of discrete sound entities, syllables and phonemes; this is the domain of phonemics. But the speech signal is, in fact, continuous. If you look at a sonogram of some chunk of speech, you don’t draw a series of vertical lines through it separating one phoneme from another; nor can you snip a tape recording into phoneme-long or syllable-long segments and reassemble it into something that sounds like natural speech. The aspects of the speech stream which are phonemically active differ from one language to another, which is why foreign languages all sound like “Greek.” Independently of the fact that you don’t know what the words mean or how the syntax works, you can’t even hear the phonemes in the speech stream.

Now, that’s the distinction I’m after, between phonemes and the raw speech stream. That’s the distinction I drew in my discussion of music (third post). Phonemes are those properties of the speech stream that are linguistically active.
In thinking about this over the last week or two I’ve begun to suspect that things would work out fine if I reversed my old position and put memes in the head and phenotypes out there in the world. In this view, then, memes are sensorimotor schemas, or aspects of such schemas, with/through which we perceive objects and events in the physical world. And cultural phenotypes are objects and events in the world.

This solves one rather odd problem in my previous conception. Consider a musical performance where there are, say, 125 people present. Just how they’re divided between performers and audience is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that we have 125 different brains processing the music. Since I’d identified the cultural phenotype with a neural event, does that mean that we’ve got 125 phenotypes, one for each person present? To be sure, we can index them to the one event in the external physical world that they all share, but still, this seems rather odd. Alternatively, do we think of the phenotype as one collective event, which is perhaps not so odd given the discussion in chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Beethoven’s Anvil? We have to think about that collective event anyway, but it’s no longer clear to me that we need to assign such events the phenotype role in an evolutionary account of human culture.

Why, then, did I ever adopt such an odd formulation? For one thing, it’s always been clear to me that the environment to which culture must adapt is the collective psyche of a cultural group. That environment is realized in the brains of the individuals in the group, taken as a collective entity. If that’s the environment, I reasoned, then the thing that thrives or dies in that environment, i.e. the phenotype, must be in that environment, no? Well no, all that’s necessary is that it be closely coupled to that environment. The mechanisms of human perception guarantee that and the specific “points” of coupling are the memes.

Another thing that was certainly on my mind is all the talk of memes flitting about from brain to brain and even, in some cases, hijacking brain space against the biological interests of individuals. Such talk is OK for informal chitchat, as is talk of selfish genes, but it’s useless for serious intellectual work. By sticking the memes in the external world, as properties of things and events, I eliminated the possibility of such idle nonsense.

The fact of the matter is, alas, those who insist on talking idle nonsense about culture will do so regardless of how I think of memes. They aren’t my audience. My audience, whoever it is, is going to have to put up with an account that insists on psychological reality. Not only that, on neuropsychological reality. And that precludes notions of ideas hopping from one head to another quite independently of whether or not culture is conceived under the aegis of an evolutionary process involving the selective retention of (that is, repetition of) phenotypes and random variation among memes (culturally conditioned perceptual schemas, or aspects thereof).

In any case, under my conception, memes are not a new and heretofore unidentified class of entities — as they are in Robert Aunger’s embarrassing The Electric Meme. Rather, they are entities that have already been talked about as cultural codes of one sort or another. Identifying them as memes simply assimilates those codes to an evolutionary dynamic.

Nina Paley: Seeing Gods

This is another excerpt from my interview with Nina Paley about the Agni Pariksha episode of her feature-length animated film, Sita Sings the Blues. In this excerpt we’re talking about Sita seeing gods and about how Paley depicted them in the Agni Pariksha.
About Fire, and Agni

NP: That’s Agni.

BB: Right. And several frames back he was much larger. And these borders -

NP: Yeah, these are traditional borders. This border specifically [right hand border] is actually from – with the feet – it’s from prayer shawls that actually sorta tell the story of the Ramayana. So they’re very Sita-Rama specific fabric design. And then all this stuff, these things [left side], came from just a book of traditional block design.

BB: And so here, how many concentric circles of Agni’s do you think you have going –

NP: I don’t know, because they got larger, um, so they were a cycle, not just a cycle in terms of walking and then rotating, but they were also coming towards you. So in that sense they were infinite.

[Note: animators talk of ‘walk cycles’ as a sequence of images that you can cycle over and over to depict a character walking.]

BB: I mean, at one point I counted at least four of them.

NP: Yeah, there’d be at least four. [Counts them in them image.] One, two, three, four, maybe five of them.

BB: And, the various fills, you just grabbed this that and the other thing.

NP: They’re devotional cards. They’re specifically devotional cards so they relate to deities, they relate to religion here. And the idea behind that is that, you know, in a state of so much grief and pain, you’re actually sorta’ crossing worlds, you’re –

BB: Right –

NP: - more in the world of the divine at that point.

BB: Sure sure sure.

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?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Graffiti Textures

You can find more photos of graffiti textures at my Flickr site.

Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 3 – Shakespearean Resonance

It is high time I concluded my investigation into ritual patterning in Sita Sings the Blues [1].  But alas, that is not to be. Once I plunged into it, the Shakespeare connection has proven to be too rich to be given only the first half of a post, where the other half was to be a return to cosmology and such. So, that’s what we’ve got here, just Shakespeare and Paley. Cosmology will have to wait.

Multiple Plots

Much Ado About Nothing, like all of Shakespeare’s comedies, and Elizabethan comedy in general, is multiply plotted. We have two couples, Claudio and Hero, Beatrice and Benedick, who become engaged, though it takes a bit of work to pull it off. The play gets its dramatic shape from the Claudio-Hero plot, so let’s start there.

Claudio has returned from war (along with his friend, Benedick); he sees Hero and decides that she’s the woman he wants to marry. He asks his company commander, Don Pedro, to speak with Hero’s father, Leonato, to arrange a marriage. And so it is done, though not without a hitch or two.

Meanwhile, Don Pedro’s misanthropic and bastard brother, Don John, does not at all like the outbreak of happiness that is likely to follow upon this wedding. So he schemes to stop it. He arranges for Claudio to witness a tableau in which he thinks that Hero is having an assignation with another man. Thus it comes about that, when all are gathered in the chapel for the big wedding, Claudio himself has different ideas. When he arrives he denounces her as a whore.

The frame grab is from Sita, but the issue, woman’s purity, is as old as the hills.

Not only is the wedding called off, but in the ensuing anger and confusion, Hero faints. She is presumed dead by most of those present, who leave the scene before she revives. Those who remain determine to preserve the appearance of her death so as to watch and see what happens. Perhaps things aren’t as they seem – are they ever? What happens, of course, is that everything gets worked out and we have a happy ending; Claudio and Hero become engaged once again, and so do Beatrice and Benedick.

The first thing to note is that this botched wedding has become, in effect, a rite of separation (as I explained in the first post in this series [2]). Hero is socially dead – and presumed physically dead as well. This event takes place at the opening of Act Four (of five). That is to say, it happens a bit after the mid-point of the play. Thus it takes place at the same relative point in the play’s action as the point where Dave dumps Nina, 51 minutes into a 78 minute film (not counting the end credits).

In both cases we, the audience, saw the break coming. In Much Ado we saw Don John’s plot; in Sita we could see that Dave had lost interest in Nina – she saw it too, but didn’t want to draw the logical conclusion, not until the fateful email hit her over the head with it. The endings, of course, are different. Hero becomes reconciled to her man and so will re-enter society as his wife. Nina does not become reconciled to Dave, nor does she find another man. She finds the Ramayana and makes a film. That’s a very different kind of ending for a romantic comedy and reflects, among other things, 400 years of history between Shakespeare’s play and Paley’s movie.

My first point, then, is simply about relative timing. In both cases the woman goes into social exile at roughly the same time in the action – presumably this reflects some aspect of how the nervous system works, we need so much time for the build-up and then, Wham! break things wide open. My second point is, again, a simple one: it is the woman who goes into social exile, not the man. Yes, it is 400 years in the past, but we in the West are still in touch with Shakespeare’s world. On this point, his world is not so different from Valmiki’s rather older world half-way around the globe.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ritual in Sita Sings the Blues, Part 2b

In my immediately preceding discussion of ritual patterning in Sita Sings the Blues I considered the Nina’s story up to the very end where “we see her in bed, cat cradled in her arm, and reading Valmiki’s Ramayana. She appears to be content with her life. And so we may say that that last scene functions as a rite of incorporation.” And that led to a series of questions:
Under what terms? If she’d organized her identity around her husband, and he’s left her, and she doesn’t have a new husband or even a boyfriend, then why say that she has become reintegrated into society? There is an answer to that, and a fairly obvious one, but I’d like to pose another question: What happened that she went from begging Dave to taking her back to being content with her new kitty and a book?
It’s now time to take up Sita’s tale. Not only is it more complex than Nina’s tale – more complex in that it involves more actors in more episodes over a longer period of time – it is presented in a more complex manner. Paley presented Nina’s tale in a single visual style while she presents Sita’s tale through three visual styles, one of them featuring three narrators and commentators who both tell us what happens and comment on the action. Another visual style, a classically “cartoony” one, is used for the Annette Hanshaw songs, and the other is based on Indian miniatures. Because of this complexity, I won’t run through her story event by event as I did Nina’s – though I may do so at a later time.

Sita’s Is Lost, then Found

Sita is married to Rama, heir apparent in the kingdom of Ayodhya. As a result of a promise his father had made to one of his wives, Rama is sent into exile for 14 years and Sita, the ever-dutiful wife, insists upon accompanying him. While in exile, Sita is abducted by Ravana and taken to his kingdom, Lanka. Though he wants to bed her, Sita refuses, and he, scholar and gentleman that he is, doesn’t force himself on her. With the help of Hanuman, the monkey king, Rama rescues Sita and returns with her to . . . just where is not exactly clear to me.

Wherever it is, what Sita had hoped would be a happy reunion is not. Rama is cold toward her. And Paley places this cold reunion (37:21 – 39:06) immediately after Dave’s rejection of his Nina’s charms (36:09 – 37:21), with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet sawing away on the soundtrack. In response to Rama’s unexpected and inexplicable rejection, Sita asks that a funeral pyre be built. And so Sita immolates herself to the tune of “Mean to Me,” sung by Annette Hanshaw (39:38 – 42:53).

She survives the flames unharmed, meaning that she is indeed pure, but Rama remains unconvinced. Nonetheless, he takes her back to Ayodhya with him by some means of air transport (which is much discussed by the commentators, 44:19 – 45:03), as his 14 years of exile have come to a close.

That’s where Sita’s tale stands when the film goes into intermission (47:55 – 50:56), followed by Sita’s being dumped (50:56 – 51:40), which is then followed by the Agni Pariksha segment (51:40 – 54:40).

Whoa whoa whoa! Didn’t you just say that Sita underwent trial by fire as Hanshaw sang “Mean to Me”?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The 6th Street Embankment –

– more properly known as the Harsimus Stem Embankment, is a national treasure located in Jersey City. It once conveyed freight trains to and from docks on the Hudson River in New York Harbor. It is now abandoned and has been the center of a development battle for over a decade. It looks like the preservationists have one another battle, a major one, in the effort to preserve it as a part (local commentary here). Here are some photos I took from atop the embankment in the late Fall of 2008.

You can see more photos of the Embankment at my Flickr site.