Sita Sings the Blues (2008)2-12 July 2009

Days before the Revelation International Film Festival was set to begin, my friend Gary – who prefers the dull solitude of watching films on his laptop to a cinema-going experience – was given a complementary six-film mini pass to the festival. When I asked if he was attending opening night, he informed me that Nina Paley, creator of opening night film Sita Sings the Blues, had already put her entire film online for free download. “No need to head out if I can watch it here”, he shrugged, claiming this method was as “punk” as Rev – a festival unburdened by major sponsors that takes frequent delight in sniffing out what lies beyond the frayed edges of cinema – itself. I knew it was futile trying to change Gary’s mind and wax lyrical about the communal energy cinema going provides, highlighting the necessity of cinema, echoing program director Jack Sargeant in his introduction to this year’s line-up:

…This year there are some incredible, strong movies that, for whatever reason, demanded to be included… films that show what cinema can be, revealing its true promise as spectacle, as disseminator of information, as narrative, as necessity. (1)

This romantic yet militant approach to presenting the possibilities of cinema has been Rev’s mission since its humble, homegrown beginnings twelve years ago. Needless to say, Gary was nowhere to be found on opening night. Sita juxtaposes a loose adaptation of the Ramayana (animated in a crisp, bright, Flash-based style) with contemporary autobiography (Paley’s divorce – in Squigglevision), punctuated by disagreements between its three narrators representing the many interpretations of the Ramayana (performed by shadow puppets). The geometric shapes and bold colours that define Sita’s story – a princess kidnapped by her beloved yet brutish husband – sway to a melancholy rhythm as Sita lip-syncs tunes by 1920s jazz siren Annette Hanshaw. After a while, a small number of walkouts occurred every time Sita opened her mouth to croon yet another jazz standard – not to mention the many that fled during Paley’s intermission (one of many Bollywood tributes). Indeed, Sita unravels like a psychedelic retro-Bollywood variety show, where comic skits punctuate visually inventive music videos, and eventually dilute all drama from Paley’s parallel story arc. Perhaps its fragmented, bite-sized, repetitive nature would feel more at home on Gary’s computer screen (2) – Paley even graciously offers the film on her website with the blessing “From the shared culture it came, and back into the shared culture it goes.” (3)

I assumed the choice to screen Sita on opening night was made to highlight a focus of this year’s festival: the relationship between music and the moving image. This year featured two events featuring alternate silent film compositions; the first, for The General (Buster Keaton, 1926), was composed by Kathy Corecig and performed by local musicians Viola Dana. (4) The gorgeous new transfer flickered onscreen and soon after, Viola Dana’s driving mix of bluegrass and country folk transported the audience to The General’s civil war setting, always complementing – but never attempting to overbear – Keaton’s remarkable physical storytelling. A large number of children were present at the session, drawn into the film by the busy, rich score provided by the chamber ensemble. The film’s title character, the locomotive, provided a reoccurring musical motif that packed momentum until the film’s final frames. Viola Dana’s members remained humble during the rousing standing ovation, and as the end titles rolled, they each extended an arm toward the giant screen in acknowledgement of their conductor, Buster himself. Download that, Gary.

The Seashell & The Clergyman (1927)The other alternate silent composition event was Music For Silents, a showcase of silent shorts re-scored by Steven Severin, with Germaine Dulac’s La Coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell & The Clergyman, 1927) as its centrepiece. Like Viola Dana, Severin provided another unique, un-downloadable cinema experience, yet unlike Dana’s ensemble multi-instrumentation, Severin arrived to the screen’s left armed with only his laptop. Severin surrounded Seashell in a claustrophobic, electronic spider’s web, highlighting the gloominess of the long shadows, building tensely as the titular clergyman delves deeper into filthy-minded lust. The score peaks, then retreats back into the shadows for the final sequences. Seashell filled the first act of Severin’s showcase – he could have stopped there and I doubt anyone would have called foul. Not a wholly untoward idea; the uneven second half saw Severin score a range of experimental works (primarily by either Aura Satz, or Bruno Forzani and Halene Cattet) which, after the nightmarish slow burn of Seashell, would have been better received as entrées than desserts. In Chambre jaune, (5) Cattet and Forzani depict acts of phallogocentric homicide in the Gialli tradition with “situations” of sexualised violence drenched in a blaze of colour-gelled lighting. Whether their agenda was homage, deconstruction or abstraction by attempting to reduce Gialli to its signature short hand of eroticised murder is open to debate, but their film remains superficial, since the Gialli tradition itself in cinema and the Mondadori paperbacks they derive from are already concerned with this relationship between sex and violence (and place the artistic emphasis on such “moments”). Thus Cattet and Forzani’s motivations seem unclear, though maybe the importance in this case was sound. Severin’s electronic score was a possible reference to the harmonic language and sound motifs of Goblin and needed the visuals to follow suite.

Norweigian horror Død snø (Dead Snow, d. Tommy Wirkola) suffered from a similar case of presenting cinematic Cliff’s Notes to the detriment of its originality – and without the high-concept ridiculousness that made other zombie-Reich films Le Lac des morts vivants (Jean Rollin, 1981) and Shock Waves (Ken Wiederhorn, 1977) a blast. Instead, Død snø wheels out the lazy “cabin in the woods” back-story like a chore until the undead Schutzstaffel arrive, searching, by the bloodiest means possible, for their missing treasure. Not that any of this matters; the raucous audience that filled the late-night session were there to be gleefully disgusted, and in this regard, Død snø succeeded. Look for anything underneath the bloody snow, and you will be let down; Død snø sacrifices an original, national approach to the zombie-Reich for riffing the greatest hits of American splatter cinema, beat by beat, which only bridges the huge divide in integrity between the films Wirkola clearly reveres and the film he delivers. Not that any of this matters either; appreciative patrons were buoyed by every severed S.S skull that dropped to the snow and cheered as our Nordic heroes met their ends in wonderfully gruesome ways. Their enjoyment was rowdy and infectious and turned a mediocre film into an entertaining one – Rev wins again.

Gary was also absent for Late Night Wonders and Gothic Nightmares, a retrospective of the work of New York-based visual artist Lisa Hammer that had its Australian premiere at the festival. The program notes prepare the audience for an experience that is perfectly situated at Rev:

Watching these films feels, on occasion, like watching a particularly unruly group of girls playing dress-up in their evil grandmother’s attic… This wild celebration of imagination is all shot through with the kind of bleak and hilarious narratives of quasi-Edwardian ‘children’s’ author Edward Gorey. (6)

The program description of Hammer’s work is flattering and undeservedly so. Hammer’s 8mm experiments, filmed and performed with her husband and friends, were the antithesis of Rev’s punk-like ethos, a fact punctuated by the constant advertisements to visit Hammer’s website, and those of her partners in crime, during what amounted to an hour-long showreel edited by Hammer herself. Her appropriation of imagery associated with “gothic” cinema from German Expressionism, to the ‘30s Universal horror films, to the style revival in the late ‘50s of her namesake Hammer Film Productions unfortunately carries little weight beyond the “dress-ups” and occasionally “gloomy” set pieces. Less Edward Gorey and more Emily the Strange (without her consistency), Hammer’s rearticulation of attempting to marry this style with the DIY ethos of her New York predecessors lacks both provocation and/or sophistication, which hopefully her future works can explore more fully to help realise her potentially unique formula.

Van Diemen’s Land (2009)The other Gothic Nightmare of the festival was of the Australian variety and discussed in depth at the Writing Australian History in Film workshop (one of Rev’s many film-related discussion panels that run parallel to the festival), which featured the creators of independent revisionist Oz historical drama, Van Diemen’s Land (d. Jonathan Auf Der Heide). When the talk turned to the so-called Australian Gothic, another film in this year’s line-up soon dominated the discussion: Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), snagged by Revelation as it tours the country in a long-awaited, brand new print. Wake in Fright was hotly anticipated by festival-goers and played to a packed house on the penultimate night of the festival. Even Gary, who had managed to leech and view a downloaded bootleg from an older print, was convinced to come along to enjoy the experience with an audience. Sure enough, the screening of Wake in Fright was the highlight of the festival and the finest example of Rev’s cinema of necessity – primarily within a national context. This was not a long music video or an uneven retrospective, or a film devoted to wearing its references on its sleeve. Wake in Fright remains, thirty years on, a true original, perfectly placed in the old, art-deco inspired main theatre of the Astor, which only comes out of retirement once a year – to house Rev. Even Gary praised the subtleties within the uneasy relationship between “clever bloke” John Grant (Derek Bond) and the film’s Bacchus, Doc Tydon (Donald Pleasance) that he never would have noticed without seeing the film in its intended projection format (well done, Gary).

Rev’s line-up for documentaries always wields surprises, and is often more in tune with the anarchic, raw intent of the festival than the feature line-up. Two American documentaries discussed the idea of militant fandom, with a sympathetic eye. The first, We Are Wizards (d. Josh Koury), begins quaintly as an observational peek behind “wizard rock”; bands devoted to songs about Harry Potter and his friends, performed in libraries, to eager children. Koury’s film gradually uncovers heftier themes about the layers of fandom in the digital age (beneath an unravelling, zig-zag approach). The line between celebrity and fan becomes hazy; as journalist (and Potter fanatic) Melissa Anelli explains while attending a book signing for a book she has written about Harry Potter fandom, “now the fans have fans” – all connected by Potter. I was pleased to see a number of children attend the session despite We Are Wizards being legally available to view on the internet, and I secretly hoped they were as inspired as the myriad of Harry Potter geeks onscreen, keeping the Rev spirit alight.

Ben Steinbauer, like most people, first saw Jack Rebney on a viral video called The Angriest Man In The World, an edited collection of blue-mouthed outtakes from a 1989 promotional video for Winnebago. In the video, Rebney curses the camera crew, the sun, the Winnebago he’s there to talk up, his lines that he had written himself, and a fellow named Tony for “[slamming] the fucking door”. In Winnebago Man, Steinbauer seeks out the eponymous grouch from the infamous video and eventually finds him, caretaking alone at a mountainside retreat. At first, Rebney appears calm, toying with Steinbauer, appearing to know or care little of his online fame. The second visit exposes this as a ruse, and the remainder of the film presents Rebney as a man struggling with the limitations of ageing as his eyesight deteriorates, and the fact that he may leave the earth best known as The Angriest Man In The World. A sense of collective guilt propels Steinbauer’s film; after all, all filmmakers have experienced awful days like during Rebney’s Winnebago shoot. Ultimately, Steinbauer’s affection and sympathy for Rebney is shared amongst an audience as the Winnebago Man attends a screening of his famous footage, accepting and playing on his grouchy status. The story did not end there, however, as Steinbauer, who was in attendance at the screening, called Rebney via teleconferencing for a quick Q&A. Gary was in the audience for this film, which seemed perfect; like everyone else, Gary could freely watch Rebney’s foul-mouthed tirade on the internet – but only here could he experience more satisfying level of character depth than a short viral video, and as a bonus, ask the Winnebago Man a question, too.

Wake in Fright (1971)As the festival was nearing an end, I was surprised to see Gary had used every ticket on his mini-pass, and conceded that Rev’s aim – the simple act of sharing all kinds of cinema – is a noble one, and one that has never shifted in the twelve years since Rev’s inception and guidance (for its first decade) by Richard Sowada – who, despite residing on the east coast like Sargeant, remains a ubiquitous figure at the festival. What I gleaned from the twin highlights of this year’s festival (Wake in Fright and The General) was that the language that once constituted a punk, experimental sensibility in cinema, where information is imparted in an abrasive, visually electic manner, has all but become the mainstream today, with youtube, pop-up ads and scrolling newsbars bombarding the senses. Now, the novelty of classical storytelling, it seems, has become the new punk. I shared with sentiment with Gary on the last day of the festival, and he warmed to it, before saying farewell, binning his used mini-pass, and heading home to download Sita Sings The Blues.


  1. Cited in the 12th Revelation Perth International Film Fesitval program, p. 4.
  2. Sita was created out a period of catharsis for Paley, and was animated, edited and rendered on her home computer. (http://www.sitasingstheblues.com).
  3. “I hereby give Sita Sings the Blues to you. Like all culture, it belongs to you already, but I am making it explicit with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License.” Nina Paley on her website, 28 February, 2009.
  4. Viola Dana are Oete Guazzelli, Mace Francis, Tristan Parr and Kathy Corecig.
  5. Cattet and Forzani’s film was awarded Best International Short at Stiges 2002.
  6. Cited in the 12th Revelation Perth International Film Fesitval program, p. 10.

About The Author

Damien Spiccia is a filmmaker and cinéphile currently based in Perth, Western Australia.

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