A few years back, comics and animation artist Nina Paley flew to New York City for a business meeting. Once in the Big Apple, her then husband, who was a working animator in India, told her he wanted a divorce…by email.
That announcement would trigger Paley to create what has to be one of the greatest animated films of the decade, “Sita Sings The Blues,” which came out on DVD through IndiePix/New Video New York on December 15. It would also take Paley into an arena where she might end up changing the copyright laws in the United States.
Yet like any good story, there’s a beginning, a middle and at least a denouement. Being “Sita” is as much about Paley’s own personal history as well as the Indian classic mythos The Ramayana, the beginning is a great place to start.
Nina Paley was born in Champaign, Illinois in 1968. By the late 80’s, Paley would move to California; first Santa Cruz, then eventually settling in San Francisco. It wasn’t long before she established herself as a comic artist, first with the series “Nina’s Adventures,” then with the commercially syndicated “Fluff.”
“A newspaper comic strip artist,” Paley clarifies, even though she had published books through Dark Horse and Kitchen Sink, among others. “I would say working in comics taught me how to tell stories better than any discipline I could imagine. Space is very limited in comics. You have to make your point as soon as possible, and through pictures as much as possible.
“Comics were shrinking even when I got into it over 20 years ago. So it’s like less words all the time, rely on the picture as much as possible to tell the story. I learned how to use that. It taught me brevity and show, don’t tell. You want to tell something in a comic, you got only so many words you can fit into a panel, but you do have that space for the picture.”
In true animation tradition, Paley soon was following the path previously blazed by Winsor McCay and Earl Herriman to Aaron McGruder and Judd Winick, she started to produce her own cartoons. Her shorts were soon starting to garner her even more recognition.
Paley also was married during this time, to a man that “Sita” only identifies as Dave, who was also an animator. As the film begins, the two had apparently developed a comfortable life in San Francisco. Then Dave got a job offer. The only catch was he would have to move to Trivandrum, in India. At first, it was only supposed to be a six month gig, but his contract was extended.
The lonely Paley somehow convinced her husband that she needed to be by his side. So she sublet their apartment, made sure their cat Lexi (who was a star of one of her shorts, after all) was properly taken cared of, and flew to Trivandrum.
That’s when things got strange. According to Paley Dave was exceedingly withdrawn and unresponsive to her advances. Then she took the aforementioned flight to New York City. This was a double bind because she couldn’t move back to her own apartment in San Francisco because of the sublet.
“I spent this time totally depressed,” she admits, “moving from one friend’s couch to another.”
There’s an old cliché that great art comes from great suffering. Then there’s certain things become cliché because they’re true. Paley’s suffering would be the trigger for her first feature film, the truly great “Sita Sings The Blues.”
Not that the movie appeared completely out of the blue. From the sounds of things, she had sown the seeds for “Sita” while in India.
For starters, she had started reading the classic The Ramayana around that time. This led to her grabbing her laptop.
“The style I used for the musical numbers came when I was living in Trivandrum,” Paley recalls. “I had no idea that I was going to make a feature film. In fact, I didn’t even know I was going to be animating. I would see my husband at the time working in animation studio there where there was all this cartoony stuff there. Then I would leave. Then I would see all this Indian art all over the place. It’s really vibrant. That style just reflected my state of mind at the time. It was this hybrid of really cartoony and really Indian at the time.
“Also, it’s really economical to draw at the time. All I had then was this little laptop. That particular part of it was started on my laptop. All I had was this little 5” tablet and I would draw it in Flash. So the design for Sita, Rama, Hanuman and Ravana all started there. I also designed those characters before I ever heard Annette Hanshaw. I designed them before I even knew I was going to make a film.”
The film also incorporates elements of her comic strip style, particularly when she talks about her own life. If that wasn’t enough, she incorporated the use of cut-ups and Indonesian shadow puppets. Her use of puppets have caused a bit of confusion, as it was the preferred method of Lotte Reininger, who made the second ever animated feature film, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926).
“You know I never say ‘Prince Achmed’ in my entire life!” she declares. “Shadow puppets have been around for a very long time. It’s a very common source. I think shadow puppets informed her animation and it formed my animation. She didn’t form me directly.
“I’ve seen lots of other animation that’s descended from her. I can’t even name it all. There is so much of it. I watched PBS when I was growing up. I was born in 1968. When I was a kid they aired a lot of art animation on PBS. I didn’t know who made it, but I sure loved to watch it. Then there was Sesame Street. It had all kinds of really good animation then. It was the 70s. I lived in a college town. There was art! People put art on television back then!”
Paley also incorporated some computer generated effect, rotoscope and the kitchen sink into the movie. The trick is she used them as storytelling aides. The traditional shadow puppets and use of classical Indian art cut-ups were for narration. Her comic book style was when she would break into her own personal story. For some musical numbers she worked in out-and-out multi-style collage.
“I love different styles,” Paley states. “When I was doing daily comics I felt really trapped because I had to keep the exact, same, strict style going every day. It felt claustrophobic.”
Still, the bulk of the storytelling, her modern reenactment of the trials of Sita, has their own particular roots, especially to one particularly sexy and censored cartoon character of the 1930s.
“Sita’s design reminds a lot of people of Betty Boop. I definitely see it,” Paley acknowledges. “I wasn’t looking at Betty Boop cartoons when I designed Sita. There’s something about that wide eyed, pure innocence and she’s so desirable. Her sexiness is so a major point of the plot in the story. That’s why Ravana desires and kidnaps her. She has a mix of purity, innocence and hotness. Betty was quite the little tease, and Sita definitely is not that. She wants no one but Rama. Only Rama.”
Both Betty and Paley’s Sita have one other thing in common, they often burst out into song. They both even spring into songs of the same time period, that of 1930s pop jazz divas. Yet to the discerning ear, there again are differences. La Bette Boop would spring into material that was either directly pulled or derived from Helen Kane. With Sita, Paley went with another singer, Annette Hanshaw.
For those who never heard of Hanshaw, at one time she was actually competition for the blues and jazz divas of her day, including Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith. Her signature was to end every record with a simple but swinging “That’s all,” which Paley also used for maximum effect in “Sita.” Over a period that spanned from the Jazz Age and into the Great Depression, Hanshaw recorded for a number of record labels, but primarily for the French record label Pathe and several subsidiaries of Columbia.
The big difference between Hanshaw and the likes of Kane, Waters and Smith is she wasn’t a bluesy shouter or archly coy coquette. It would be hard to imagine her going “Boop Boop be Doop” or hollering “Give me a pig’s foot and a bottle of beer!”
“But she did though!” Paley laughs. “The big difference is she did it with a lot of love.
“I heard Annette Hanshaw’s voice for the first time in New York shortly after he dumped me. At that time I was sleeping on various people’s sofas. At one time I stayed in the home of a record collector who had a wide assortment of 78s. He had Annette Hanshaw in his collection. Her voice is so free of malice. It’s so pure. Even when she’s singing about her man doing her wrong, it’s with such vulnerability, sweetness and love.”
“I think the A-side of the first record I heard had something called ‘Moonlight Savings Time’ and the B-side was ‘Mean To Me.’ We all laughed when ‘Mean To Me’ came on. My friend said something like ‘OK Nina. It’s your theme song. Hah hah!’ because my ex had been so mean to me. For me, I was like ‘This is exactly it!’ So ‘Mean To Me’ became the first song I animated.”
Yet at the core of this movie is the tale of Rama and Sita, which in India were the perfect embodiment of masculine and feminine virtues. The magic comes when Paley holds the mirror up to these ideals against her life.
“Sita always remains devoted to Rama. In The Ramayana, this is considered a virtue,” says Paley. “It’s considered ideal behavior. In my life, it was the bane of my existence. I was ashamed of myself for not getting over him. I appreciated that in The Ramayana in that story Sita was elevated by that experience. She wasn’t degraded by it.”
The film was released in 2008, and Paley openly admits it became a truly seminal event in her life.
“The first year has been quite a learning curve for me,” Paley admits. “I had never had so much attention before. I got lots of criticism as well, but even if some of it was painful, I know how to deal with that. The praise and the love were really confusing to me. I sort of had to grow regarding how to accept it.
“Only now, December 2009, am I beginning to feel like myself again. I decided to stop travelling, because I was travelling a lot. Not getting much work done and always being in a different time zone. Put them together and I was not really being able to create. I was always being disoriented. ‘Sita’ was starting to dominate my life whether it travelling on its behalf or a lot of tedious, administrative stuff related to the film.”
It would be the administrative stuff that would cause the next great crisis in Paley’s career. In the long run it would be this administrative stuff that could change American copyright law as we know it. For that, you’ll have to wait for the next column.