Sita Sings the Blues

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

david bordwell I was fortunate enough to take a course in Film Theory from David Bordwell when I went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. It was probably the hardest course I ever took, as well as the most illuminating. I came out  of his cinematic boot camp with a lot of new friends and a completely new way of looking at movies. Some of the stuff from David’s course is still so entrenched in my mind that I can’t pry it out. Every time my wife and I go to the movies, I drive her insane because I want to follow Noel Burch’s instructions about where to sit. It’s always got to be where the width of the screen reaches the edges of peripheral vision so that you see “what the director sees in the eyepiece” and neither a portion of the image or a rectangle in a frame. Being faithful to Noel Burch is a real bitch in an IMAX theatre, and can cause arguments.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that if you are serious about movies and don’t know about David Bordwell yet—you should. He and Kristin Thompson have a wonderful blog that you should bookmark, as both of them are incredibly knowledgeable and insightful, as well as terrific writers.

One recent post from Kristin deals directly with what SpeedCine is all about, which is to spread the word about the great films that you can get online without stealing them. In this case, Kristin reports on Nina Paley’s animated feature, “Sita Sings the Blues,” which the director is giving away for free. Kristin calls “Sita” one of the highlights of Roger Ebert’s recent Ebertfest. She quotes Ebert’s program notes:


“I got a DVD in the mail, an animated film titled “Sita Sings the Blues.” It was a version of the epic Indian tale of Ramayana set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. Uh, huh. I carefully filed it with other movies I will watch when they introduce the 8-day week. Then I was told I must see it.

I began. I was enchanted. I was swept away. I was smiling from one end of the film to the other. It is astonishingly original. It brings together four entirely separate elements and combines them into a great whimsical chord.”

Thompson continues: “The four elements are: a sketchily animated account of the breakup of Nina’s marriage; the tale of Rama and Sita from the Indian epic, the Ramayana; musical numbers that all borrow recordings of Ms. Hanshaw; and three shadow-puppet narrators who try, not always successfully, to recall the details of the Ramayana and its background history. As Roger says, somehow all this achieves complete unity.”

Here’s the opening of the film, from YouTube:



You can watch the entire film on PBS’s Reel 13.

You can also download a copy of the film in SD or HD on Paley’s site,  If you want to, you can also donate there, but she doesn’t pressure you to. If you’re interested in new models for online distribution of movies, definitely check out Paley’s site. She even allows people to make money off her movie, as long as they don’t put DRM on it!

One part that I found absolutely fascinating in Kristin’s post is that Paley had to pay $50,000 for music rights in order to give her film away. And she wouldn’t have had to pay a dime if it weren’t for all the funny games that have been played  to extend the years of copyright. Just another paradox in the topsy-turvy world of intellectual property in Web 2.0.