This weekend the Gene Siskel Film Center presents a one-week run of Nina Paley’s rhapsodic animated feature Sita Sings the Blues, which also screens twice in Evanston as part of the new Talking Pictures Festival. Like two other instant classics, Michel Ocelot’s Azur & Asmar and Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronaud’s Persepolis, Sita revitalizes 2-D animation by drawing on the heavily ornamental artwork of the East. Watching the movie on a laptop, I was overwhelmed, so I can only imagine how one would feel being dwarfed by its elaborate imagery on a big screen.
Paley began developing Sita Sings the Blues after her husband took a job in India and eventually dumped her by E-mail; among the art she used to salve her wounds were the Hindu epic the Ramayana—particularly the story of Sita, whose devotion to her husband, Rama, brings her great suffering—and the lovelorn songs of 20s jazz vocalist Annette Hanshaw. Paley’s combination of the two is the sort of intuitive masterstroke that elevates a movie far above its peers. You could throw five hundred Pixar animators at this idea, and they’d be sure to fuck it up. But toilng alone at her computer, Paley made it work.
Hanhaw’s recordings are in the public domain, but Paley neglected to clear the publishing rights for the songs (among them classics by Irving Berlin, Gus Kahn, Oscar Levant, Yip Harburg, Oscar Hammerstein, and Fats Waller) and found herself at the mercy of the copyright holders. I have a hard time seeing Paley as some sort of victim: a professional animator, she must have known what kind of trap she was laying for herself. But in a lengthy interview with QuestionCopyright.org, she makes a number of excellent points about the unfairness of copyright law. As part of her settlement with the copyright holders, she can sell only 4,999 DVD copies of the movie. But Paley is also offering “promotional copies” of the entire film as free downloads, hoping the movie’s dissemination will buoy sales of T-shirts and other merch on her site.
Also opening today, and highly recommended, is John Crowley’s British drama Is Anybody There?, with Michael Caine as a bitter, despondent old stage magician adopted by a young boy with an interest in the paranormal (Bill Millner from Son of Rambow). The aforementioned Talking Pictures Festival starts tonight and continues through Sunday in Evanston. And we have new reviews of Audience of One, Battle for Terra, A Decade of Love, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Lemon Tree, Lymelife, The Merry Gentleman, Obsessed, The Soloist, Tyson, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
But seriously, the hell with all of them. This is the movie you want to see this weekend: