Not long ago, Nina Paley and her husband lived in San Francisco, where she worked as a cartoonist and animator. Then he got a job in India, and she moved with him there. This afforded Paley an opportunity to read the Ramayana, an ancient epic about the goddess Sita's highly taxing separation from her husband, Rama.
Then Paley returned to the States for a brief business trip. This afforded her an opportunity to be dumped by her husband via email.
Less long ago, Paley gathered three good-humored friends of Indian ancestry in a recording studio and let them gab for a while about their recollections of the Ramayana. This afforded Paley an opportunity to animate her friends' hilariously improvised account of the epic into the narrative framework for her brilliant and bewitching feature debut, Sita Sings the Blues.
More specifically, Sita sings a few spicy '20s torch songs by Annette Hanshaw, while her strange and poignant and sometimes funny story of separation plays out against Paley's own. There are monkey armies, flying eyeballs, dancing gods and breaking hearts.
Thanks to Paley's apparently unlimited visual imagination, each thread gets its own distinct style, and the braid is beautiful. In her capable hands, animation becomes both an immensely sophisticated mode of motion-picture storytelling and a marvel of the childlike cartoon fun we all remember and understand. It's exactly the right medium for combining myth, dream, cultural memory, autobiography and the rituals of romance.
Sita Sings the Blues is publicly available for free online, but the best way to see it, as its website suggests and anyone who caught it at the Red Vic last week surely will confirm, is "on a big screen, in a dark room, with other people!"
Happily, such amenities will again be available this Wednesday and Thursday evenings at the Smith Rafael Film Center. This affords you an opportunity.
Sita Sings the Blues plays Wednesday and Thursday, August 26 & 27, 2009 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. For tickets and information, visit cafilm.org.