Animation Animators cartoons Experimental & Underground irreverence News Nina Paley religion Religion & Spirituality satire Seder-Masochism Sita Sings the Blues

Making Fun: The Satiric Impulse in Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues and Seder-Masochism

Nina Paley

The Angel of Dying at Passover killing the firstborn Egyptians. From Seder-Masochism.

In her two longest works of animation – Sita Sings the Blues (2008) and Seder Masochism (2018, at present on the pageant circuit) – Nina Paley turns her sharp wit and prodigious inventive expertise to 2 of probably the most vital tales of antiquity in an effort to draw out the thornier problems with gender, tradition, and faith that proceed to have implications for the current day.

* * *

When you have not heard of Nina Paley, you aren’t alone. “America’s Greatest-Beloved Unknown Cartoonist” is what she typically calls herself on her personal web site, and an enormous a part of the rationale for Paley’s relative lack of popularity lies in her standing as a “free tradition” activist. She is the artist-in-residence on the nonprofit group, and has even given a TED speak on the subject, whose title – “Copyright Is Mind Injury” – provides a superb indication of her usually derisive tone towards most of society’s sacred cows. The kind of business success she may take pleasure in as an animator is intentionally undercut by this gleeful refusal to play by the common guidelines of inventive manufacturing and dissemination. However it’s this very refusal to play by any algorithm, and actually to mock something that even smacks of rule-following, that provides Paley’s cartoons their specific frisson. In her two longest works of animation – Sita Sings the Blues (2008) and Seder Masochism (2018, presently on the pageant circuit) – Paley turns her sharp wit and prodigious inventive expertise to 2 of probably the most vital tales of antiquity as a way to draw out the thornier problems with gender, tradition, and faith that proceed to have implications for the current day. That sounds very critical (and naturally problems with gender, tradition, and faith are very critical, and she or he does make some moderately critical factors alongside the best way), however Paley’s work, whereas sarcastic, doesn’t take itself too significantly. Disarming slightly than heavy-handed, her cartoons are endlessly rewatchable, the best way good cartoons are, the best way they have been once you watched them on Saturday mornings as a child. And but, as I hope to point out, the laughter that arises as we watch her work is darkish in nature, although deeply cathartic as properly.

Sita Sings the Blues, begun in 2003 and launched 5 years later, is a feature-length movie that mixed progressive animation with a delicate evocation of each fantasy and memoir. It was, as well as, totally self-produced. Let me repeat that: totally self-produced. When you think about what number of CGI artists are ordinarily concerned in a normal animated launch – final yr’s universally panned Emoji Film, as an example, credit 18 individuals in its Artwork Division, 56 individuals within the Animation Division, and 91 in Visible Results – you understand what an achievement Paley’s one-woman present really is. In a exceptional number of types, Sita Sings the Blues recounts the epic story of the Hindu goddess Sita, the unjustly forsaken spouse of Rama, as associated within the Ramayana. Intercut inside this mythic story of mistrust and abandonment are video renditions of songs of the “he-done-me-wrong” selection by the Jazz Age singer Annette Hanshaw, in addition to the story of Paley’s personal jilting by her then-husband, the extremely unlikable Dave.

The movie opens with Sita rising out of the waves like Botticelli’s Venus, after which turning to play one among Hanshaw’s songs on a peacock gramophone, a picture proper out of The Flintstones. It’s fairly a gap: an Asian goddess seen by means of a set of Western lenses, one excessive tradition, the opposite low, set to the sound of a Jazz Age chanteuse.

Sita rising from the waves like Botticelli’s Venus. From Sita Sings the Blues.

When the document skips, considerably repeating the road “a lady like me,” Sita touches it and the display explodes, revealing the title sequence and giving us the movie’s musical and inventive overture.

Nina Paley

Vishnu and Laxmi, avatars of Rama and Sita, of their conventional iconic pose. From Sita Sings the Blues.

The smaller man center-screen with the rotating faces anticipates our antagonist, Ravana, the multi-headed demon-king, who kidnaps Sita and retains her on the island of Lanka till she is rescued by a military of monkeys led by Rama, the recumbent blue determine who’s getting the erotic foot therapeutic massage from Laxmi, an everlasting type of our heroine Sita. Whereas it’s clear that Sita has not been untrue nor in any method compromised by Ravana throughout her captivity, doubts about her purity come up after the rescue, and Rama topics her to a trial by hearth that she passes with none hassle. Mistrust stays on Rama’s half, nevertheless. He banishes her so as to not lose face in entrance of his individuals, even if she is pregnant together with his twins, who, when born, are raised by the ever-dutiful Sita to be reverent worshippers of their father. The small print of this slightly concerned epic story are associated to the viewers by a trio of shadow puppets who, voiced by a set of Indian actors in an unscripted dialog, fumble over particulars, right each other’s errors, and supply a operating commentary on the story.

Nina Paley

Javanese shadow puppets as choral determine in Sita Sings the Blues.

Problems over copyright points with Hanshaw’s music hampered distribution of Sita, though it was a favourite amongst critics. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe referred to as Sita “an virtually indescribable pleasure … dazzling and poignant,” whereas J. R. Jones of the Chicago Reader wrote that it was “fascinating, mesmerizing, spellbinding – I’ll throw every part within the movie-critic e-book at this animated function by Nina Paley.” “I’m enchanted. I’m swept away. I’m smiling from one finish of the movie to the opposite,” wrote Roger Ebert, no much less, concluding, “This is likely one of the yr’s greatest movies.”Sita Sings the Blues likewise did nicely on the pageant circuit, profitable awards at Athens, Avignon, Boulder, Santa Fe, Montreal, and two dozen others. Reward for the movie was not common, nevertheless. Among the many expenses leveled towards the film was that its illustration of the goddess was scandalous, and moreover, that by exploring gender roles within the Ramayana and making use of the teachings to her personal life, Paley was engaged in a blatant act of cultural appropriation. The tenor of this criticism was that in Sita Sings the Blues, we now have the deliberate imposition of Western, feminist values onto an historic spiritual epic.

This cost shouldn’t be with out foundation, in fact. This feminist critique of Rama is most clearly seen within the part, towards the top of the movie, when a hymn is sung in honor of the god by his sons born in banishment. It begins out properly sufficient:

Rama’s nice, Rama’s good,
Rama does what Rama ought to
Rama’s simply, Rama’s proper,
Rama is our guiding mild

Earlier than lengthy, nevertheless, the reward that has begun in all sincerity veers off into outright sing-songy sarcasm:

Sing his love, sing his reward
Rama set his spouse ablaze
Acquired her residence, kicked her out
to allay his individuals’s doubt.

Rama’s clever, Rama’s simply,
Rama does what Rama should
Obligation first, Sita final,
Rama’s reign is unsurpassed!

That within the Ramayana Sita is being held to requirements not one of the male gods are pressured to satisfy appears evident sufficient to a Western viewers, although it’s an perception not typically expressed amongst trustworthy Hindus and by no means in so satirical a tone. There’s an previous trope, moreover, that a satirist is nothing greater than an embittered romantic, and if this is so, we will clearly really feel the taunting ridicule Paley places into the mouths of Rama’s youngsters because the bitter fruit of a failed romance.

The scene instantly following this quite pointed evaluation of the Hindu chief god’s appalling remedy of his spouse returns us to Nina’s personal story. She is in New York and, in a second of desperation, picks up the telephone and begs Dave to please, please, PLEASE take her again, to no avail. The shadow puppets observe this and, just like the refrain of an historic Greek tragedy, supply their measured consideration of her state of affairs and that of Sita as properly. As considered one of them concludes,

When you had a girlfriend who was being handled actually badly, by like her ex or her present boyfriend and she or he stored saying, ‘no, every single day I’m gonna be sure I prepare dinner for him and ship him a scorching lunch at midday’ – Aren’t you going to be like, ‘pay attention he doesn’t such as you and speak to you, you’ve received to maneuver on. One thing’s improper.’ OK? Sita’s doing this pooja day-after-day . . . I imply, I really feel, I really feel . . . she shouldn’t love somebody who doesn’t deal with her proper.

Nina Paley

Shadow puppet sympathizing with Nina’s heartbreak. From Sita Sings the Blues.

That is maybe probably the most vital scene within the movie, one connecting the mythological previous to a sorrowful current. The juxtaposition of types vividly illustrates the space between the occasions and locations of those figures along with their states of thoughts, with the frantic Nina rendered in colourful sketch whereas the shadow puppets supply their sensible appraisal in clever black and white. On this second, we see most clearly the best way Paley has woven the story of her personal life into the material of this historic, sacred story. As she informed an interviewer for (Comedian E-book Assets),

The Ramayana and the Hanshaw songs and my very own story gave the movie three particular time limits that basically help the thesis that the story of the Ramayana is common. It’s not particular to historic India. It’s not particular to as we speak. It’s not particular to the 1920s. It’s a narrative that retains telling itself time and again and over via our lives.

Maybe there’s something reductive about in search of relationship recommendation from the Ramayana. Then again, heartbreak is among the many most devastating of human feelings, and recourse to faith among the many most time-honored sources of solace. What’s mistaken with trying to our strongest historic tales for assist with such affliction? Sita’s story of abandonment, Paley tries to point out, is just not a lot totally different than Annette Hanshaw’s, nor her personal. This studying of the traditional Hindu fable boldly cuts throughout cultural variations as a way to set up widespread floor in ladies’s shared expertise of rejection. In the long run, the story advised by Sita Sings the Blues is, because the skipping previous album goes, about “a lady like me, a lady like me, a lady like me.”

As famous above, there have been these within the Hindu group who, angered by the irreverent portrayal of a central spiritual determine, labored diligently to censor her movie. An try in June 2011 to point out Sita by Rohine A. Narine, a younger Hindu group organizer in Queens trying to foster spiritual concord, provoked an awesome backlash. “Cease abusing Hindu gods,” learn one e-mail he acquired, whereas one other claimed that the filmmaker had a “pervert, sick, disgusting and barbaric creativeness.” A web-based petition towards the movie circulated underneath the title an “Appalling Denigration of Ramayana,” on which one commenter remarked, with the off-handed murderousness so typically seen on the Web,

In all probability, she gained’t discover herself on the forefront of any terrorist assaults. I might recommend that she attempt doing the identical factor with Islam. . . . However seeing as how there shall be no retaliatory assaults that finish her life, hopefully she’ll sometime understand her mistake.

So, Sita Sings the Blues has provoked fairly a variety of responses – on the one hand, there’s Roger Ebert smiling from ear to ear; on the opposite, we’ve this informal eager for a Hindu fatwa. Whereas this will likely appear an overreaction to a cartoon, we ought to not dismiss the consequences such rage can produce. Because the pious troll above subtly signifies, it was just a few years earlier that cartoonists on the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten acquired demise threats for depicting Mohammad, and just a few years later that al-Qaeda operatives would drive their approach into the workplaces of Charlie Hebdo to kill twelve individuals in Paris. Satirists of faith working in even probably the most innocuous of media could be engaged, we should acknowledge, in very harmful work.

In regards to the overt hostility directed towards her, Paley responded with attribute stubbornness, and in an interview drew a straight line from the outrage over Sita to her present undertaking, Seder-Masochism. As she famous,

When Sita Sings the Blues was out on the earth, a few of my collaborators have been focused by fundamentalists, they usually referred to as them quote self-hating Hindus. And I used to be like, I do know that rhetoric. My individuals got here up with that. After which additionally I might have critics, once more Hindu fundamentalists, saying, ‘Oh you wouldn’t dare do that about another faith. And I used to be like, nicely truly sure I might. (Laughs). And you’d by no means dare do something that needed to do with the Koran or Islam. And I used to be like, nicely truly, you already know, I’ve a Jew card. And I’m going to play the Jew card. I’ve waited my entire life, now’s the time.

Nina Paley

Nina Paley’s “Jew Card,” from her weblog. “Amongst different issues, this entitles me to name my present venture Seder-Masochism. Need one? Print your personal!”

In contrast to Sita, Seder-Masochism could be very a lot advised from an insider’s viewpoint, and thru its insider jokes it doles out its disapproval with derision: the place earlier movie variations of Moses’ story both focus solely on his position as liberator, as in Prince of Egypt, or, as in The Ten Commandments, gloss over the extra disturbing points of the Exodus with a present of solemn if artificial piety, Seder-Masochism goes straight for the jugular of the Jewish basis story. As Paley advised interviewer Jack Shalom,

Probably the most fascinating a part of the story, and the half I used to be not uncovered to, rising up, and the half that an entire lot of individuals don’t know, is the half that occurs within the desert, with the golden calf – the Levites, one department of the Hebrews, kills an entire totally different department of surviving Hebrews, as a result of they made this golden calf. It was like a massacre, it was like Jews killing Jews. . . . So I needed to incorporate that. I like probably the most problematic elements of the story. That’s what makes them fascinating.

If the reproof of Rama (and by extension, all highly effective males who profit from their positions of privilege) varieties the essential coronary heart of Sita Sings the Blues, it’s a very delicate type of rebuke as compared with the brutal ridicule Paley directs towards Moses, whose story she illustrates with a take-no-prisoners type of mockery in Seder-Masochism.

Thirty installments or so of this challenge have been uploaded onto her weblog and different net platforms over the previous a number of years, and solely lately has the entire been stitched collectively right into a function that’s now on the pageant circuit. I’ve not seen the ultimate reduce of Seder-Masochism however did watch a rough-cut screening on the Rauch Planetarium on the College of Louisville in March 2018 (proven as that yr’s Naamani Memorial Lecture). The movie was, as anticipated, fulfilling, unsettling, and insightful in equal proportions, although it has an unfinished feeling that probably displays the work’s preliminary conception relatively than its lack of ultimate modifying. In describing the inspiration for this function, Paley informed Selection,

The ebook of Exodus was rather a lot grimmer than I anticipated. I used to be simply raised with Passover, and it was this good story. We have been oppressed, we have been slaves after which we’re free, hooray! I used to be not conscious of the mass slaughter, and the entire thing was actually a bummer. Studying the legal guidelines for ladies, which have been utterly unfair, that was a drag as properly. So I’d dedicated to doing this film about Exodus, and labored with it for years when doing the Moses scenes, and I used to be like, “Uh, how am I going to complete this film?”

What was arduous was discovering the purpose, discovering a construction for the movie, and what was I making an attempt to say. Or as I put it, what was my muse doing with me? What did she take into account? It was actually uncomfortable ready. There have been months, virtually years, the place I used to be identical to, “W​hy has my muse introduced me thus far?​”​

If I personally have any criticism of the undertaking, because it was screened in Louisville in any occasion, it must be that the last word association Paley has come across, with its give attention to goddess worship, doesn’t completely maintain collectively. It’s lots of enjoyable, however feels extra like a collection of clever gags than like a coherent piece of labor, which is to say, the entire just isn’t larger than the sum of its elements.

However, that stated, what elements they’re! Paley covers a lot of the Exodus story in Seder Masochism, from the burning bush and the plagues to the arrival on the Promised Land, and it’s no exaggeration to say that a whole seminar could possibly be structured round them. Critical as it’s, nevertheless, the comedian type of expression in Seder-Masochism is itself a part of the critique. The animation type is brightly coloured, and appears impressed remotely by the graphic design of the 1960s Colorforms units – past the pleasing look of the essential geometric shapes, although, Moses and Aaron are made to resemble the Ten Commandment tablets and the Star of David respectively, and all through they bounce up and down in time to the varied songs that type the soundtrack (songs Paley has on no account gotten copyright permission to make use of, naturally, as a result of “Copyright is mind injury,” as you’ll recall, although most cinemas and broadcast networks don’t share this opinion and consequently, will possible not be displaying her movie).

Nina Paley

Moses and Aaron. From Seder-Masochism.

The cautious choice of music within the numerous movies is among the many nice pleasures of Seder-Masochism, jarringly at odds with the scenes unfolding on the display and harking back to Quentin Tarantino’s ironic use of pop songs (as in Reservoir Canine, as an example). Within the video of This Land Is Mine, the theme music to Otto Preminger’s 1960 movie Exodus on the inspiration of the state of Israel, is sung in flip by totally different teams of warriors killing one another within the Holy Land, from cavemen to Egyptians to Macedonians to Romans all the best way as much as the British, Israelis, and numerous terrorist teams. As every band of troopers kills the earlier one, we hear sounds of stabbing and dying lifted proper out of a online game. The corpses mount up as the ultimate verses, sung soaringly by Andy Williams, are mouthed by a grinning Angel of Dying who hovers over a panorama crammed with mushroom clouds.

Among the many most thought-provoking of those shorts is the remedy of Exodus Chapters 19-40, the wanderings within the Desert, which Paley has entitled Tabernaculous! (go forward and watch it at, which is about to the tune of 10CC’s 1976 hit “The Issues We Do for Love.” Using a lyric love music to explain the connection between Yahweh and his individuals just isn’t new, in fact: one thinks, as an example, of the Music of Solomon or John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, “Batter My Coronary heart, Three-Individual’d God,” in these very phrases. However the place these examples are daring of their allegorical applicability, and intentionally co-opt the language of bodily want to explain religious longing, Paley’s selection of a catchy pop music appears designed as an alternative to parvis componere magna, “to match nice issues with small,” and thereby knock the Biblical story off its pedestal. It’s exhausting to not snigger at this, however as well as, there’s one thing somewhat impressed within the numerous methods the refrains are illustrated. “Ooh you made me love you/Ooh you’ve obtained a method,” is sung twice within the track: the primary time we hear it in Tabernaculous!, Moses is depicted standing in for the Jewish individuals usually, questioning why their God has forsaken them for 4 hundred years; the second time it’s heard, Moses is addressing the Jewish individuals, questioning why, after their worship of God, they’ve forsaken him for the Golden Calf. Once we hear the road “You assume you’re gonna break up/Then she says she needs to make up,” we see the unique tablets of the Ten Commandments smashed to the bottom, after which an unlimited hand emerges from a cloud to supply a model new set. Moses then turns to the viewer and shrugs, bringing the second to its shticky conclusion.

Nina Paley

“You assume you’re gonna break up …” God restores the tablets to Moses. From Seder-Masochism.

Tabernaculous! concludes with the music’s closing strains – “the issues we do for love, oh the issues we do for love” repeated time and again – accompanied by a montage of sacrificed lambs, slaughtered worshippers of the Golden Calf, and bloody circumcisions. It’s very amusing, however because the music fades, we then reduce to precise footage of Klansmen lighting torches, an Israeli fighter jet dropping bombs, and eventually, the World Commerce Middle towers engulfed in smoke and flame, all introduced to us as a “factor we do for love.” It’s a video that begins out humorous in a campy kind of approach and ends with some very darkish humor certainly – like a scorpion, the sting is within the tail.

In fascinated by these two animated works of Nina Paley’s, and the best way that they interact conventional – certainly, holy – materials with a light-weight however not essentially light-hearted contact, I’m reminded of John Dryden’s remarks in his Discourse in regards to the Unique and Progress of Satire from 1693 in regards to the satirists of historic Rome. “Horace,” he writes, “was a Delicate Admonisher,” whereas Juvenal lived in “an Age that deserv’d a extra extreme Chastisement.” As he goes on to say, “Horace means to make his Reader Giggle; however he isn’t positive of his Experiment. Juvenal all the time intends to maneuver your Indignation; and he all the time brings about his function.” Whether or not these remarks are an apt description of historic literature I depart to others to determine, however as a mind-set concerning the satiric functions of Nina Paley’s animated options, I’ve discovered the excellence between the smiling satirist and the grimacing one to be helpful. Whereas at occasions Sita Sings the Blues is irreverent and at different occasions comes near blasphemy – a time period one of many shadow puppets makes use of of the questioning of Sita’s character, in reality – the general tone of the movie is certainly one of excessive regard and admiration for the Ramayana. Paley is prepared to interact in a critique of Sita and Rama’s saga, to make certain, however in doing so, she is nicely conscious of her standing as an outsider. The small print of the story are associated by voices talking with distinct Indian accents who, of their dialog with each other, find yourself validating Paley’s most pointed feminist criticism of the supply materials – even right here, nevertheless, it’s a Horatian-style delicate admonishment inside a usually good-natured model of the story, and in Sita Sings the Blues’ remaining shot, the goddess ship us away with a wink.

It might be exhausting to make the case that Seder-Masochism is particularly good-natured. The person movies of the challenge typically conclude with a grim gallows humor – the smoking Twin Towers of Tabernaculous!, for instance, or the Angel of Demise searching over the Center East on the finish of This Land Is Mine – and although she tries to embrace a constructive feminist ethic, Paley’s movie appears suffused with an abiding Juvenalian sense of indignation. Watching Seder-Masochism, it did appear to me at occasions nihilistic, and even blasphemous (although I ought to notice that, of the many individuals whom I’ve pressured to observe Paley’s clips, most have ended up sooner or later placing their palms to their mouth to say quietly, “Oh my God”). Whereas definitely these are the very moments that are supposed to be arresting and even extreme, by some means they’re additionally deeply humorous in a means that’s exhausting to explain. It’s this very type of humor that Freud, in serious about black comedy, as soon as mentioned as displaying the unresigned, rebellious high quality of human nature. “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of actuality, to let itself be compelled to endure,” he wrote. “It insists that it can’t be affected by the traumas of the exterior world; it exhibits, in reality, that such traumas are not more than events for it to realize pleasure.” Whether or not it’s the Ramayana, the Ebook of Exodus, or the stodgy stipulations of copyright regulation, Paley gleefully pokes holes within the holiest of holy tales and by no means appears happier than when the howls of protest rage in response. As I sat there within the Rauch Planetarium in Louisville, I assumed what a marvel Nina Paley had wrought in the course of the troublesome political second of 2018 with Seder-Masochism. By no means greater than prior to now few months have I fearful for the world: devastating local weather change, attainable nuclear strikes, faculty shootings, the rise of white nationalism, amongst different issues, have weighed closely on all of our minds. Victories for the human spirit have felt few and much between of late, however right here I used to be uneasily chuckling together with everybody else as Paley’s darkish comedy descended into additional darkness. It’s no small factor to snort within the face of Demise, in any case, however how rather more spectacular is it to make a whole auditorium chuckle together with you?

* * *

For his or her recommendation and encouragement, let me gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Dharitri Bhattacharjee, Thomas Lakeman, and Kelly Malone. Particular thanks, too, to the organizers of the College of Louisville’s 2018 Naamani Memorial Lecture, particularly Ranen Omer-Sherman, and, in fact, to Nina Paley herself.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email