Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Blue Man Dupe

Anyone who has crossed paths with a truly inspiring teacher knows that the time they were lucky enough to spend in that person's presence is a gift to be cherished for the rest of their life. When I was in my sophomore or junior year at Brooklyn College (back in the days when tuition for one semester was only $50), my sister advised me to take a course with Professor Anna Babey-Brooke, stressing that it didn't really  matter what the course was about, it would turn out to be a great learning experience.

Would it ever!  

"The Babbling Brooke" (as she was known to her students) was a pre-feminist phenomenon with an encyclopedic knowledge of mystical fertility rites from primitive cultures who never seemed to stop talking. Leaping from one obscure reference point to another -- in a meticulously detailed pattern of intellectual linkage that, some 30 years later, would become known as "web surfing" --  she charmed us with stories about Peace Corps volunteers who struggled to bring modern plumbing to remote civilizations only to see their efforts literally go down the drain as awe-struck natives kept trying to send peace offerings to their gods by magically sacrificing (flushing) rocks down the toilet.

Try to imagine a lusty, buxom academic who had just emerged from the teacher's lounge covered in a wild pattern of chalk-stained eraser marks (which made one wonder if she had been pinned against a blackboard by a fellow staff member for a quickie between classes). Then combine that image with the concept of an adventuresome, literary Auntie Mame and you'll get a tiny idea what Professor Babey-Brooke's classes were like.  

With her gray hair rapidly becoming undone, a wealth of bracelets jangling from both wrists, and a mischievious twinkle in her eye as she waltzed us through Frazer's Golden Bough (making sure that we understood the importance of being on good terms with the Earth Mother during harvest season), she introduced us to a wealth of foreign paintings and highly sexual primitive artwork.  

One day she would be rattling on about primitive taboos and sexual magic -- explaining how, by rapidly alternating one's sexual polarity, a character in mythology could easily impregnate herself without needing a man.  The following week she might treat us to her excitedly narrated slide show about the highly erotic wood sculptures created by the natives of the Sepik River District in Papua New Guinea.  To this day, a visit to the DeYoung Museum's prized collection of Oceanic Art as well as its Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art brings back fond memories of those sexually-charged lectures.

Babey-Brooke helped shape our impressionable young minds as we nervously tiptoed through passages from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Ramayana, making the acquaintances of the vengeful goddess KaliHanuman (the famed and very mischievious monkey king), Ganesha (the elephant god), and a wealth of mythical creatures from foreign cultures.  

I was lucky enough to take two of her courses: "Comparative Religion" and "Indo-European Myths and Legends."  In her own bizarre way, she was even more stimulating than puberty.

Thus, it came as no surprise that I had myself a grand old time watching Sita Sings The Blues, the full-length animation feature by Nina Paley that opens the San Francisco Film Society's Third International Animation Festival on November 13 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema.

Paley spent five years single-handedly animating Sita Sings The Blues on her home computer as part of a personal quest to write and produce what she has subtitled "The Greatest Break-up Story Ever Told."  Loosely adapted from the Ramayana, her film is an absolutely breathtaking piece of animation art.

What sets it apart, however, is its obvious mix of cultures and cultural icons.  The story begins in San Francisco, where a young couple with a particularly rowdy house cat finds their relationship threatened when Nina's husband receives a contract to go work in India (in 2002, Paley followed her then-husband to Trivandrum, India, where she was first exposed to the Ramayana).

As the young couple's relationship suffers increasing stress and alienation, the heroine becomes fascinated with the tales of the Ramayana, especially the tale of Sita's abduction from her beloved Lord and husband, Rama, by the demon Ravana, king of modern-day Sri Lanka. Using different styles of animation for the modern story of how Nina's husband dumped her by email and how Rama and Sita's relationship was challenged by Ravana, Paley also employs a group of characters based on Sri Lankan cut-out silhouette figures to act as a set of nosy neighbors who offer catty comments on Sita and everyone else in the plot.

In Paley's film, the ripe and curvaceous Sita looks like a cartoon combination of an Indian princess and Betty Boop.  What takes the film to an entirely new level, however, is Paley's use of a group of Jazz-era recordings by songstress Annette Hanshaw, which add great merriment to the proceedings.  Watching an increasingly pregnant Sita turn deeper shades of blue to Hanshaw's warbling of 1929's hit song "Am I Blue?" will have you laughing your head off.

The sheer beauty, wild inventiveness and feisty humor of Paley's animation (including a wildly funny two-minute "Intermission" segment) rivals anything put out by Pixar and/or Disney.  As I watched her film, I kept pinching myself to see if it was possible that I could simply be having too much fun.  Here's the trailer:

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