400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.
Of the 100 or so new movies I've seen so far in 2009, only two of them have been great, and both of those have been animated. The first was Henry Selick's Coraline (111 screens), about which you've no doubt heard. The second one has been quietly playing on a few screens around the country and it opens this week at the Red Vic Movie House in San Francisco. Oddly, if you go to the film's official website, you'll find that it's also available for free streaming or download, and you can request that your local PBS station broadcast it. You can also order DVDs -- when they're finished. The film is not in 3D, it's not CGI-animated, and it has no fart jokes. It's Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues.
Billed as "the Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told," Sita Sings the Blues is based on the epic Ramayana. It tells the tale of Sita, who falls in love with the king's son Rama. Rama is banished from his kingdom for 14 years, and Sita accompanies him; they make the best of their life in exile. Unfortunately, an evil multi-headed king kidnaps Sita. Rama eventually rescues her with the help of a monkey-man called Hanuman, but he can no longer trust her "purity." Paley does not adapt this story literally. Rather, she takes several, simultaneous approaches, with several different artistic styles. In one version, Sita lip-syncs to old records by jazz singer Annette Hanshaw and magically, the songs ("Lover Come Back to Me," etc.) fit exactly.