In her two longest works of animation – Sita Sings the Blues (2008) and Seder Masochism (2018, currently on the festival circuit) – Nina Paley turns her sharp wit and prodigious artistic talent to two of the most significant stories of antiquity in order to draw out the thornier issues of gender, culture, and religion that continue to have implications for the present day.
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If you have not heard of Nina Paley, you are not alone. “America’s Best-Loved Unknown Cartoonist” is what she sometimes calls herself on her own website, and a big part of the reason for Paley’s relative lack of reputation lies in her status as a “free culture” activist. She is the artist-in-residence at the nonprofit organization QuestionCopyright.org, and has even given a TED talk on the topic, whose title – “Copyright Is Brain Damage” – gives a good indication of her generally derisive tone toward most of society’s sacred cows.1 The sort of commercial success she might enjoy as an animator is deliberately undercut by this gleeful refusal to play by the regular rules of artistic production and dissemination. But it is this very refusal to play by any set of rules, and in fact to mock anything that even smacks of rule-following, that gives Paley’s cartoons their particular frisson. In her two longest works of animation – Sita Sings the Blues (2008) and Seder Masochism (2018, currently on the festival circuit) – Paley turns her sharp wit and prodigious artistic talent to two of the most significant stories of antiquity in order to draw out the thornier issues of gender, culture, and religion that continue to have implications for the present day. That sounds very serious (and of course issues of gender, culture, and religion are very serious, and she does make some rather serious points along the way), but Paley’s work, while sarcastic, does not take itself too seriously. Disarming rather than heavy-handed, her cartoons are endlessly rewatchable, the way good cartoons are, the way they were when you watched them on Saturday mornings as a kid. And yet, as I hope to show, the laughter that arises as we watch her work is dark in nature, though deeply cathartic as well.
Sita Sings the Blues, begun in 2003 and released five years later, is a feature-length film that combined innovative animation with a sensitive evocation of both myth and memoir. It was, in addition, entirely self-produced. Let me repeat that: entirely self-produced. When you consider how many CGI artists are ordinarily involved in a standard animated release – last year’s universally panned Emoji Movie, for instance, credits 18 people in its Art Department, 56 people in the Animation Department, and 91 in Visual Effects2 – you realize what an achievement Paley’s one-woman show truly is. In a remarkable variety of styles, Sita Sings the Blues recounts the epic story of the Hindu goddess Sita, the unjustly forsaken wife of Rama, as related in the Ramayana. Intercut within this mythic tale of distrust and abandonment are video renditions of songs of the “he-done-me-wrong” variety by the Jazz Age singer Annette Hanshaw, as well as the story of Paley’s own jilting by her then-husband, the highly unlikable Dave.
The film opens with Sita rising out of the waves like Botticelli’s Venus, and then turning to play one of Hanshaw’s songs on a peacock gramophone, an image right out of The Flintstones. It’s quite an opening: an Asian goddess seen through a set of Western lenses, one high culture, the other low, set to the sound of a Jazz Age chanteuse.
When the record skips, significantly repeating the line “a woman like me,” Sita touches it and the screen explodes, revealing the title sequence and giving us the film’s musical and artistic overture.
The smaller guy center-screen with the rotating faces anticipates our antagonist, Ravana, the multi-headed demon-king, who kidnaps Sita and keeps her on the island of Lanka until she is rescued by an army of monkeys led by Rama, the recumbent blue figure who is getting the erotic foot massage from Laxmi, an eternal form of our heroine Sita. While it is clear that Sita has not been unfaithful nor in any way compromised by Ravana during her captivity, doubts about her purity arise after the rescue, and Rama subjects her to a trial by fire that she passes without any trouble. Distrust remains on Rama’s part, however. He banishes her in order not to lose face in front of his people, despite the fact that she is pregnant with his twins, who, when born, are raised by the ever-dutiful Sita to be reverent worshippers of their father. The details of this rather involved epic story are related to the audience by a trio of shadow puppets who, voiced by a set of Indian actors in an unscripted conversation, fumble over details, correct one another’s mistakes, and offer a running commentary on the story.
Complications over copyright issues with Hanshaw’s music hampered distribution of Sita, although it was a favorite among critics. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe called Sita “an almost indescribable pleasure … dazzling and poignant,”3 while J. R. Jones of the Chicago Reader wrote that it was “captivating, mesmerizing, spellbinding – I’ll throw everything in the movie-critic book at this animated feature by Nina Paley.”4 “I am enchanted. I am swept away. I am smiling from one end of the film to the other,” wrote Roger Ebert, no less, concluding, “This is one of the year’s best films.”5 Sita Sings the Blues likewise did well on the festival circuit, winning awards at Athens, Avignon, Boulder, Santa Fe, Montreal, and two dozen others.6 Praise for the film was not universal, however. Among the charges leveled against the movie was that its representation of the goddess was scandalous, and furthermore, that by exploring gender roles in the Ramayana and applying the lessons to her own life, Paley was engaged in a blatant act of cultural appropriation. The tenor of this criticism was that in Sita Sings the Blues, we have the deliberate imposition of Western, feminist values onto an ancient religious epic.7
This charge is not without basis, of course. This feminist critique of Rama is most clearly seen in the section, toward the end of the film, when a hymn is sung in honor of the god by his sons born in banishment. It starts out well enough:
Rama’s great, Rama’s good,
Rama does what Rama should
Rama’s just, Rama’s right,
Rama is our guiding light
Before long, however, the praise that has begun in all sincerity veers off into outright sing-songy sarcasm:
Sing his love, sing his praise
Rama set his wife ablaze
Got her home, kicked her out
to allay his people’s doubt.
Rama’s wise, Rama’s just,
Rama does what Rama must
Duty first, Sita last,
Rama’s reign is unsurpassed!
That in the Ramayana Sita is being held to standards none of the male gods are forced to meet seems evident enough to a Western audience, though it is an insight not often expressed among faithful Hindus and never in so satirical a tone. There is an old trope, furthermore, that a satirist is nothing more than an embittered romantic, and if that is so, we can clearly feel the taunting ridicule Paley puts into the mouths of Rama’s children as the bitter fruit of a failed romance.
The scene immediately following this rather pointed assessment of the Hindu chief god’s appalling treatment of his wife returns us to Nina’s own story. She is in New York and, in a moment of desperation, picks up the phone and begs Dave to please, please, PLEASE take her back, to no avail. The shadow puppets observe this and, like the chorus of an ancient Greek tragedy, offer their measured consideration of her situation and that of Sita as well. As one of them concludes,
If you had a girlfriend who was being treated really badly, by like her ex or her current boyfriend and she kept saying, ‘no, every day I’m gonna make sure I cook for him and send him a hot lunch at noon’ – Aren’t you going to be like, ‘listen he doesn’t like you and talk to you, you’ve got to move on. Something’s wrong.’ OK? Sita’s doing this pooja every day . . . I mean, I feel, I feel . . . she shouldn’t love someone who doesn’t treat her right.
This is perhaps the most significant scene in the film, one connecting the mythological past to a sorrowful present. The juxtaposition of styles vividly illustrates the distance between the times and places of these figures in addition to their states of mind, with the frantic Nina rendered in colorful sketch while the shadow puppets offer their wise appraisal in artful black and white. In this moment, we see most clearly the way Paley has woven the story of her own life into the fabric of this ancient, sacred tale. As she told an interviewer for CBR.com (Comic Book Resources),
The Ramayana and the Hanshaw songs and my own story gave the film three specific points in time that really support the thesis that the story of the Ramayana is universal. It’s not specific to ancient India. It’s not specific to today. It’s not specific to the 1920s. It’s a story that keeps telling itself over and over and over through our lives.8
Perhaps there is something reductive about seeking relationship advice from the Ramayana. On the other hand, heartbreak is among the most devastating of human emotions, and recourse to religion among the most time-honored sources of solace. What’s wrong with looking to our most powerful ancient stories for help with such affliction? Sita’s tale of abandonment, Paley tries to show, is not much different than Annette Hanshaw’s, nor her own. This reading of the ancient Hindu myth boldly cuts across cultural differences in order to establish common ground in women’s shared experience of rejection. In the end, the story told by Sita Sings the Blues is, as the skipping old album goes, about “a woman like me, a woman like me, a woman like me.”
As noted above, there were those in the Hindu community who, angered by the irreverent portrayal of a central religious figure, worked diligently to censor her film. An attempt in June 2011 to show Sita by Rohine A. Narine, a young Hindu community organizer in Queens looking to foster religious harmony, provoked an overwhelming backlash. “Stop abusing Hindu gods,” read one e-mail he received, while another claimed that the filmmaker had a “pervert, sick, disgusting and barbaric imagination.”9 An online petition against the film circulated under the title an “Appalling Denigration of Ramayana,” on which one commenter remarked, with the off-handed murderousness so often seen on the Internet,
In all likelihood, she won’t find herself at the forefront of any terrorist attacks. I would suggest that she try doing the same thing with Islam. . . . But seeing as how there will be no retaliatory attacks that end her life, hopefully she’ll someday realize her mistake.10
So, Sita Sings the Blues has provoked quite a range of responses – on the one hand, there is Roger Ebert smiling from ear to ear; on the other, we have this casual longing for a Hindu fatwa. While this may seem an overreaction to a cartoon, we ought not to dismiss the effects such rage can produce. As the pious troll above subtly indicates, it was only a few years earlier that cartoonists at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten received death threats for depicting Mohammad, and only a few years later that al-Qaeda operatives would force their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo to kill twelve people in Paris. Satirists of religion operating in even the most innocuous of media can be engaged, we must recognize, in very dangerous work.
Concerning the overt hostility directed against her, Paley responded with characteristic stubbornness, and in an interview drew a straight line from the outrage over Sita to her current project, Seder-Masochism. As she noted,
When Sita Sings the Blues was out in the world, some of my collaborators were targeted by fundamentalists, and they called them quote self-hating Hindus. And I was like, I know that rhetoric. My people came up with that. And then also I would have critics, again Hindu fundamentalists, saying, ‘Oh you wouldn’t dare do this about some other religion. And I was like, well actually yes I would. (Laughs). And you would never dare do anything that had to do with the Koran or Islam. And I was like, well actually, you know, I have a Jew card. And I’m going to play the Jew card. I’ve waited my whole life, now’s the time.11
Unlike Sita, Seder-Masochism is very much told from an insider’s point of view, and through its insider jokes it doles out its disapproval with derision: where previous film versions of Moses’ story either focus solely on his role as liberator, as in Prince of Egypt, or, as in The Ten Commandments, gloss over the more disturbing aspects of the Exodus with a show of solemn if synthetic piety, Seder-Masochism goes straight for the jugular of the Jewish foundation story. As Paley told interviewer Jack Shalom,
The most interesting part of the story, and the part I was not exposed to, growing up, and the part that a whole lot of people don’t know, is the part that happens in the desert, with the golden calf – the Levites, one branch of the Hebrews, kills a whole different branch of surviving Hebrews, because they made this golden calf. It was like a bloodbath, it was like Jews killing Jews. . . . So I wanted to include that. I like the most problematic parts of the story. That’s what makes them interesting.12
If the reproof of Rama (and by extension, all powerful males who benefit from their positions of privilege) forms the critical heart of Sita Sings the Blues, it is a very mild form of rebuke in comparison with the brutal ridicule Paley directs against Moses, whose story she illustrates with a take-no-prisoners form of mockery in Seder-Masochism.
Thirty installments or so of this project have been uploaded onto her blog and other web platforms over the past several years, and only recently has the whole been stitched together into a feature that is now on the festival circuit. I have not seen the final cut of Seder-Masochism but did watch a rough-cut screening at the Rauch Planetarium at the University of Louisville in March 2018 (shown as that year’s Naamani Memorial Lecture). The film was, as expected, enjoyable, unsettling, and insightful in equal proportions, though it has an unfinished feeling that likely reflects the work’s initial conception rather than its lack of final editing. In describing the inspiration for this feature, Paley told Variety,
The book of Exodus was a lot grimmer than I expected. I was just raised with Passover, and it was this nice story. We were oppressed, we were slaves and then we’re free, hooray! I was not aware of the mass slaughter, and the whole thing was really a bummer. Reading the laws for women, which were completely unfair, that was a drag as well. So I’d committed to doing this movie about Exodus, and worked with it for years when doing the Moses scenes, and I was like, “Uh, how am I going to finish this movie?”
What was hard was finding the point, finding a structure for the film, and what was I trying to say. Or as I put it, what was my muse doing with me? What did she have in mind? It was really uncomfortable waiting. There were months, almost years, where I was just like, “Why has my muse brought me to this point?”13
If I personally have any criticism of the project, as it was screened in Louisville in any event, it would have to be that the ultimate arrangement Paley has hit upon, with its focus on goddess worship, does not entirely hold together. It’s a lot of fun, but feels more like a series of intelligent gags than like a coherent piece of work, which is to say, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts.
But, that said, what parts they are! Paley covers much of the Exodus story in Seder Masochism, from the burning bush and the plagues to the arrival at the Promised Land, and it is no exaggeration to say that an entire seminar could be structured around them. Serious as it is, however, the comic form of expression in Seder-Masochism is itself part of the critique. The animation style is brightly colored, and seems inspired remotely by the graphic design of the 1960s Colorforms sets – beyond the pleasing look of the basic geometric shapes, though, Moses and Aaron are made to resemble the Ten Commandment tablets and the Star of David respectively, and throughout they bounce up and down in time to the various songs that form the soundtrack (songs Paley has in no way gotten copyright permission to use, naturally, because “Copyright is brain damage,” as you’ll recall, though most cinemas and broadcast networks do not share this opinion and consequently, will likely not be showing her film).
The careful selection of music in the various videos is among the great pleasures of Seder-Masochism, jarringly at odds with the scenes unfolding on the screen and reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s ironic use of pop songs (as in Reservoir Dogs, for instance). In the video of This Land Is Mine, the theme song to Otto Preminger’s 1960 film Exodus on the foundation of the state of Israel, is sung in turn by different groups of warriors killing each other in the Holy Land, from cavemen to Egyptians to Macedonians to Romans all the way up to the British, Israelis, and various terrorist groups. As each band of soldiers kills the previous one, we hear sounds of stabbing and dying lifted right out of a video game. The corpses mount up as the final verses, sung soaringly by Andy Williams, are mouthed by a grinning Angel of Death who hovers over a landscape filled with mushroom clouds.
Among the most thought-provoking of these shorts is the treatment of Exodus Chapters 19-40, the wanderings in the Desert, which Paley has entitled Tabernaculous! (go ahead and watch it at https://vimeo.com/150072601), which is set to the tune of 10CC’s 1976 hit “The Things We Do for Love.” The use of a lyric love song to describe the relationship between Yahweh and his people is not new, of course: one thinks, for instance, of the Song of Solomon or John Donne’s Holy Sonnet 14, “Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God,” in these very terms. But where those examples are daring in their allegorical applicability, and deliberately co-opt the language of physical desire to describe spiritual longing, Paley’s choice of a catchy pop song seems designed instead to parvis componere magna, “to compare great things with small,” and thereby knock the Biblical story off its pedestal. It’s hard not to laugh at this, but in addition, there’s something rather inspired in the various ways the refrains are illustrated. “Ooh you made me love you/Ooh you’ve got a way,” is sung twice in the song: the first time we hear it in Tabernaculous!, Moses is depicted standing in for the Jewish people generally, wondering why their God has forsaken them for four hundred years; the second time it’s heard, Moses is addressing the Jewish people, wondering why, after their worship of God, they have forsaken him for the Golden Calf. When we hear the line “You think you’re gonna break up/Then she says she wants to make up,” we see the original tablets of the Ten Commandments smashed to the ground, after which an enormous hand emerges from a cloud to offer a brand new set. Moses then turns to the viewer and shrugs, bringing the moment to its shticky conclusion.
Tabernaculous! concludes with the song’s closing lines – “the things we do for love, oh the things we do for love” repeated over and over – accompanied by a montage of sacrificed lambs, slaughtered worshippers of the Golden Calf, and bloody circumcisions. It’s very amusing, but as the music fades, we then cut to actual footage of Klansmen lighting torches, an Israeli fighter jet dropping bombs, and finally, the World Trade Center towers engulfed in smoke and flame, all presented to us as a “thing we do for love.” It’s a video that starts out funny in a campy sort of way and ends with some very dark humor indeed – like a scorpion, the sting is in the tail.
In thinking about these two animated works of Nina Paley’s, and the way that they engage traditional – indeed, holy – material with a light but not necessarily light-hearted touch, I’m reminded of John Dryden’s remarks in his Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire from 1693 concerning the satirists of ancient Rome. “Horace,” he writes, “was a Mild Admonisher,” while Juvenal lived in “an Age that deserv’d a more severe Chastisement.” As he goes on to say, “Horace means to make his Reader Laugh; but he is not sure of his Experiment. Juvenal always intends to move your Indignation; and he always brings about his purpose.”14 Whether these remarks are an apt description of ancient literature I leave to others to decide, but as a way of thinking about the satiric purposes of Nina Paley’s animated features, I have found the distinction between the smiling satirist and the grimacing one to be useful. While at times Sita Sings the Blues is irreverent and at other times comes close to blasphemy – a term one of the shadow puppets uses of the questioning of Sita’s character, in fact – the overall tone of the film is one of high regard and admiration for the Ramayana. Paley is willing to engage in a critique of Sita and Rama’s saga, to be sure, but in doing so, she is well aware of her status as an outsider. The details of the story are related by voices speaking with distinct Indian accents who, in their conversation with one another, end up validating Paley’s most pointed feminist criticism of the source material – even here, however, it is a Horatian-style mild admonishment within a generally good-natured version of the tale, and in Sita Sings the Blues’ final shot, the goddess send us away with a wink.
It would be hard to make the case that Seder-Masochism is especially good-natured. The individual videos of the project often conclude with a grim gallows humor – the smoking Twin Towers of Tabernaculous!, for example, or the Angel of Death looking out over the Middle East at the end of This Land Is Mine – and though she tries to embrace a positive feminist ethic, Paley’s film seems suffused with an abiding Juvenalian sense of indignation. Watching Seder-Masochism, it did seem to me at times nihilistic, and even blasphemous (though I should note that, of the many people whom I have forced to watch Paley’s clips, most have ended up at some point putting their hands to their mouth to say quietly, “Oh my God”). While certainly these are the very moments that are meant to be arresting and even severe, somehow they are also deeply funny in a way that is hard to describe. It is this very sort of humor that Freud, in thinking about black comedy, once discussed as displaying the unresigned, rebellious quality of human nature. “The ego refuses to be distressed by the provocations of reality, to let itself be compelled to suffer,” he wrote. “It insists that it cannot be affected by the traumas of the external world; it shows, in fact, that such traumas are no more than occasions for it to gain pleasure.”15 Whether it is the Ramayana, the Book of Exodus, or the stodgy stipulations of copyright law, Paley gleefully pokes holes in the holiest of holy stories and never seems happier than when the howls of protest rage in response. As I sat there in the Rauch Planetarium in Louisville, I thought what a marvel Nina Paley had wrought during the difficult political moment of 2018 with Seder-Masochism. Never more than in the past few months have I worried for the world: devastating climate change, possible nuclear strikes, school shootings, the rise of white nationalism, among other things, have weighed heavily on all of our minds. Victories for the human spirit have felt few and far between of late, but here I was uneasily chuckling along with everyone else as Paley’s dark comedy descended into further darkness. It is no small thing to laugh in the face of Death, after all, but how much more impressive is it to make an entire auditorium laugh along with you?
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For their advice and encouragement, let me gratefully acknowledge the help of Dharitri Bhattacharjee, Thomas Lakeman, and Kelly Malone. Special thanks, too, to the organizers of the University of Louisville’s 2018 Naamani Memorial Lecture, especially Ranen Omer-Sherman, and, of course, to Nina Paley herself.
- “Copyright Is Brain Damage,” Tedx Talks, October 21, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XO9FKQAxWZc, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4877122/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm, accessed October 14, 2018. [↩]
- http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2009/03/12/an_ancient_tale_gets_a_colorful_retelling/, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/sita-sings-the-blues/Film?oid=2461309, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/sita-sings-the-blues-2009, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/awards.html, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- For discussion, see Sharmila Lodhia, “Deconstructing Sita’s Blues: Questions of Mis/representation, Cultural Property, and Feminist Critique in Nina Paley’s Ramayana,” Feminist Studies 41.2 (2015) 371-408. [↩]
- Alex Dueben, “Nina Paley Talks ‘Sita Sings the Blues,’” CBR.com, March 29, 2010. https://www.cbr.com/nina-paley-talks-sita-sings-the-blues/, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- Kirk Semple, “Film Screening to Foster Ethnic Unity Stirs Trouble Instead,” New York Times, July 11, 2011, https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/21/a-plan-to-use-a-film-to-bring-sikhs-and-hindus-closer-goes-awry/, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- http://hindudharmaforums.com/showthread.php?5871-Appalling-Denigration-of-Ramayana-by-Nina-Paley!, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- https://jackshalom.net/2015/11/27/seder-masochism/, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- https://jackshalom.net/2015/11/27/seder-masochism/, accessed on October 14, 2018. [↩]
- Ben Croll, “Annecy: ‘Seder-Masochism’ Director Nina Paley: ‘I Have No Idea How This Movie Will Go into the World,’” Variety (June 10, 2018) https://variety.com/2018/film/festivals/annecy-seder-masochism-nina-paley-1202839427/, accessed October 14, 2018. [↩]
- John Dryden, “Discourse concerning the Original and Progress of Satire,” The Works of John Dryden: Poems, 1693-1696, ed. Hugh Thomas Swedenberg, Jr., et al. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974) Vol. 4: 69, 72. [↩]
- Freud, Sigmund. “Humor” (1927). The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and Its Discontents and Other Works, Standard Edition (London: The Hogarth Press, 1961), Vol. 21: 164. [↩]