‘SITA’ AND ‘RITA’/ THE BRIGHT FUTURE OF ANIMATION (MAYBE)

And I don’t mean Pixar.

No doubt we’re in the golden age of Pixar animation, but we’re also looking at the beginning of a new kind of animation– one more steadfastly at war with the epithet “cartoon.”

I want to look at Sita Sings the Blues and Chico and Rita side by side. They’re separated by a few years, and, make no mistake: the two films are worlds apart. One is the passion project of, overwhelmingly, a single artist, and the other is a 10 million euro collaboration between established composer Bebo Valdes, established director Fernando Trueba, and high artist/ designer Javier Mariscal.

But the films share a spirit. They’re both epic tales of romance, and they both traverse time in radically new ways. They also both re-appropriate aging musical styles as powerful storytelling tools, and both dabble in the excitingly postmodern pleasure of the multimedia pastiche.

That is, in both films, the music swings in and out of the foreground, so in some moments, the musicality is actually the primary source of audience pleasure– rather than any kind of “cinematic-ness.”

I also won’t be the first to posit that animated films, especially when they exist more for adult viewing than for family consumption, are often easy to define in their opposition to what, cinematically, is. This is a good place to start with Nina Paley’s hyper-modern/historical indie-masterwork.

If you haven’t had the pleasure, Sita Sings the Blues transposes: 1) a moment of flux in a modern woman’s modern relationship, 2) an accessible discussion of the events of the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic/Hindu scripture, by three charming shadow-puppet narrators, and 3) near-constant musical retellings of some of the Ramayana’s majorplot-points, all featuring the tunes of not-quite-forgotten 20’s blues singer Annette Hanshaw. Oh yeah, and its all done in 2D Flash animation. If this sounds scattershot, be assured: the film is intensely focused. All three strands tirelessly comment on one another.

This rich interplay of history, text, and the modern relationship, stand in opposition to the pretend hipness of, say, a modern Hollywood rom-com. This form pretends perfect contemporaneity, while actually just rehashing the same-old inherited sexual/romantic norms. Sita exists in an actual dialogue with history. In one moment, the narrators apparently blaspheme by questioning Sita’s (of the Ramayana) devotion to Rama, her lover (and the father of her children.) But the film then cuts quickly back to the modern relationship (also, remarkably, the film author’s relationship) to form a comment. The narrators, by judging the heroine of an ancient text, implicitly criticize the filmmaker in a way that, well, doesn’t feel implicit at all. In this way Sita uses an ancient text to point out the timelessness of loving someone that, maybe, we shouldn’t.

Also, even if the female characters (or is it just one character?) at Sita‘s center aren’t admirably composed, in-control heroines, the mere depiction of their struggle with this level of care and humor, is radical.

If Annette Henshaw’s musical numbers, as sung by Sita, don’t assemble themselves to form any thematic comment other than– again– timelessness, chalk it up to whimsy. The content of each song functions narratively.

Perhaps the other thing to mention: the way Sita upends every conception of what a film should be. It only occasionally resorts to conventional, camera-minded cinematic devices (here it differs completely from Chico and Rita, as we’ll see.) It’s impossible, watching Sita Sings the Blues, not to consider notions of auteur-ship at their most extreme. Besides having written the film herself, Nina Paley animated nearly every onscreen moment single-handedly (the exception seems to be the motion in a large battle scene.)

The camera, as a necessary obstruction between authorial vision and projected image, has been eliminated; while this is the norm in animation, it’s all the more striking here considering that Nina Paley is the sole animator involved. And it’s not unremarkable that the visual-style owes more to the picture book or the avant garde tradition (depending on the scene) than to the any discernible cinematographic tradition. Sita‘s profound willingness to be odd manifests as charm. Is that what it means to be “quirky?” Does it still count if it’s genuine?

Sita is the work of a white artist looking back through time, and re-appropriating non-white, Indian history. Chico and Rita is the work of two Spanish artists examining Cuban artists, who themselves are longing to join a white (American) system (for reasons that are never fully articulated, but rather assumed.) Chico certainly goes to New York following Rita, but both are there, I think, pursuing a wider audience for their art. Rita is also set in the 1940’s, putting it into its own dialogue with history.

Chico and Rita doesn’t much mobilize this historicity for any reason beyond the conventional, but excess can make even the conventional interesting. Director Trueba, through his well-evidenced (passionate) love for latin jazz, and artist Javier Mariscal through his careful attention to period Cuba, New York, Paris, and Vegas, create a potent nostalgia-cocktail.

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Unlike Sita which evokes history in its own painterly or fantastical way, Chico and Rita takes the relatively commonplace cinematic route of supplying a time and place which we will eventually adopt as part of our own range of experiences. The movement away from this historical starting point is a movement towards our real lives, in the present, as viewers. We recognize the trajectory of this movement intuitively, and eagerly, because we appreciate the potential of nostalgia for pleasure.

This negotiation between memory (false, in the sense of any un-lived history must be) and the viewer continues with the style of the animation (decidedly not Flash.)

The uncanniness of what sounds like Chico and Rita‘s mightiest flaw– the wonkiness of its animated spacial relations, straining to hold-up under frequent “camera” movements (drifting tracking shots and push-ins) becomes its greatest strength. For instance, in one early seen, as we drift forward through the crowd to Rita, singing into a microphone, the microphone does not re-scale as fast or accurately as Rita, and the result is a strange otherworldliness. It doesn’t register as an error, or at least not for very long. This uncanniness registers as the uncanniness of memory.

As a film already steeped in nostalgia and intoxicating, long-vanished locales, Chico and Rita winds up gaining richness and flavor from its own scaling issues. We perceive people and moments impressionistically, but colorfully, the same way we might perceive a well-worn, treasured memory. In Chico and Rita, it’s really no exaggeration to say that you can smell the tobacco, the mojitos, the air off the ocean.

Even the movie’s physics reflect this, the uncanniness of memory. Not quite cartoon like, they don’t always reflect realism either. Once, giving chase, a car rear-ends Chico’s motorcycle-and-side-car (both then at high-speeds) and the latter bounces forward ten feet, through the air, and lands without incident: the physics of the uncanny, and more importantly, the artistic willingness to paint in broad strokes, to speak to how we feel the world works around us, independent of the way we know it does in fact. 

All of this is to say that, if there was every any doubt, animation is alive and well in the cinema (even if Rango did somehow manage an Oscar the last time around.) But as usual, the best experiments, like Sita Sings the Blues, seem to stand alone. We need more Flash filmmakers, more Nina Paley’s. More mad-scientists, assembling their favorite things and their lives into pinwheels of form-busting, history-hijacking bits of personal vision. And if you’re going to spend 10 million euro on your animated feature, you’d do well to do it with an eye to the form you’re working in, a la Chico and Rita. There’s no excuse for the arbitrary- which becomes obvious if you’re drawing the world from scratch.

-Max Berwald

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