In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

28. Sita Sings the Blues

Red Vic Movie House

The Red Vic Movie House first opened in 1980 in a red victorian hotel on San Francisco's Haight Street. In 1991, due to conflicts with the landlord, the business moved a block up the street, where it operates to this day.

When I recently visited the CinéArts @ Empire theater in San Francisco's West Portal district I rode a MUNI light rail line for the first time (it took me about fifteen minutes to figure out how to pay for my ticket). The Red Vic is just a few blocks away from the N Judah line, making it easily accessible by BART. Several buses pass near by as well. I have typically found it difficult to locate parking in this neighborhood.

Despite having lived just a few blocks away for four years, this was my first visit to the Red Vic for a movie (I was once in the theater for a private party). The box office opens twenty minutes prior to each showing. I showed up early and waited near the door to keep out of the rain. An employee came out front, looked at the marquee, then went back inside. Later, a different employee did the same. A few minutes after that, the first employee was back, again looking at the marquee. I began to imagine a dialog. "What are we showing tonight?" "I'll go check . . . We're showing Sita Sings the Blues." "Hmm. I don't believe you; I had better go check myself . . . Okay, I believe you now. What time are we starting?" "I'll go check . . ." (I was offered some drugs as I watched this drama unfold.) As I finally entered the theater, I believe I uncovered the mystery: the staff were planning to redo the marquee (this was the last night for Sita), and were trying to determine which new letters they needed to bring out to accomplish the task.

The Red Vic puts out a great program, available at independent theaters throughout the city. The program lists the upcoming movies in a calendar format. These programs are available at the door, and, along with three signs addressed to UPS, plaster the windows of the doors and box office, giving the theater the appearance of being shut down, with a paper barricade discouraging anyone from peering into the lobby.

The theater offers discounted admissions on Tuesdays ($7.00), and a 4-ticket punch card for $30.00 ($7.50 per ticket).

The lobby features a few old posters, as well as those for upcoming movies. Pieces of local art are hung in the hallway leading to the restrooms. Freebies include the tabloid sized Cine Source newspaper, a program for Landmark theaters, a flyer for the upcoming German Gems film series at the Castro, ads for various film-related workshops and classes, and a call for sponsorship to help keep the Red Vic open (the highest levels of support confer on the sponsor a pass to the theater for up to a year).

The concession stand has "vegan thumbprint cookies" for $3.00; quite good. They serve popcorn in wooden bowls, and tea in ceramic mugs (free refills on hot water for the tea). A humorous public service announcement before the movie instructs patrons how to return their dishes to bins in the lobby, rather than kick them under their seats. According to two people sitting behind me, the popcorn "is like disgustingly evil good" and "so good it's gross".

The auditorium seats 143 in three different types of seats. The first two rows comprise simple cushion seats; the next four rows are love seats; the final five rows are red, swank-looking plush seats. There is very little rake to the room; I recommend sitting close or to the side to ensure no one sits right in front of you, which can obscure part of the screen. The room is bare bones in terms of decoration.

The theater shows an eclectic mix of films, including classics (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), second-runs (Whip It), limited releases (Black Dynamite), and even The Good Old Naughty Days, a "collection of 12 silent hard-core pornographic shorts from the early 1900's". Films tend to run for two days each (two showings per day during the week, and four showings on the weekend). In chatting with a staff member after the movie I learned that this is the third time in the past year that the theater has shown Sita Sings the Blues, an unusual booking pattern, but one I appreciate since I had missed the movie thus far.


Harmony and Me
At a lean 31 cuts, this trailer feels cobbled together from home videos and edited on a VHS machine. All we know is that the "me" of the title is wallowing in the remains of his relationship with Harmony. The main character says that Harmony didn't just break up with him, but that she's still at it, sustaining the process of breaking his heart. This movie looks like it was filmed for $5, yet somehow scores cameos from Kevin Corrigan and Elijah Wood. It has several good lines and funny moments, and promises to be painfully awkward.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Trailer 2)
I've already seen the movie, and it's incredible. In just 62 cuts the trailer introduces most of our main characters, a few of their quirks, and lets us marvel at the stop-motion animation. Fox and Badger claw at each other, Fox's nephew learns to play whack-bat, and Rat does a slinky, snapping walk. The trailer is a bit bogged down by quotations from reviewers who have already seen the movie, adding a lot of text clutter to otherwise beautiful scenes. The trailer is funny, and yet touching as well.

A Town Called Panic
(Previously reviewed)

Sita Sings the Blues
Everything I know about the Ramayana I learned from watching this movie. It is an ancient Indian text chronicling, among other things, the marriage of Rama to Sita, Sita's subsequent abduction by Ravana, Lord of Lanka, and Rama's daring rescue of his beloved wife. The story is animated in several different styles, some mimicking the two-dimensional caricatures of old paintings and tapestries.

The story is narrated by three iconic black-and-white silhouettes who periodically interrupt each other to contest, correct, and reorder the various details of the saga, with consistently humorous results. Their narration, in turn, is couched within a modern tale, in yet another animation style, showing how Nina (the same name as the director/writer/producer "and everything else unless otherwise specified" Nina Paley) abandons her cushy life in San Francisco to move to India with her boyfriend, only to get dumped over email, and end up in a dilapidated apartment in New York.

Sita's tale begins as a romance, demonstrating the enduring love between Sita and Rama when Rama is exiled to a forest for fourteen years. Once Sita is kidnapped by the nine-headed Ravana, the Ramayana becomes an adventure story. Ravana pressures Sita to come to bed with him, to which she replies, "The only reason I do not reduce you to ash with my own blazing power is because Rama has not ordered me to." How's that for rejection? Rama enlists the aid of a monkey army to assault the island of Lanka. And many cartoon heads roll.

The film has an intermission, during which the movie's characters make trips to the concession stand and rest rooms. A counter on the screen lets the real audience know how long until the movie resumes.

At this point, the movie's tone becomes more serious, mirrored by Nina's own breakup. Rama, having rescued his wife, doubts her virtue. What began as a classic damsel-in-distress tale evolves into an interesting mix of feminism and devotion. Sita must convince Rama that she was faithful to him while in captivity, but we are outraged that Rama would question her.

Sita periodically breaks out into song, at which point the animation becomes overtly cartoon like, with Sita's breasts so large they nearly obscure her earrings. The songs are all sung by Annette Hanshaw from the 1920s, and are so woven into the story that Hanshaw receives first billing, despite having passed away twenty-five years ago. Through these songs we gain insight into Sita's love for Rama, and her sorrow when she is rejected.

The opening and closing credits, adding yet a fifth style of animation to the mix, feature great electronic music and a mystical bombardment of imagery, including a rapid slideshow of representations of the human heart. From beginning the end the movie is fun, beautiful, enchanting, and touching. I've never seen anything like it.

In what could be an unprecedented turn, creator Nina Paley has gifted her film to the public domain, for the enjoyment of all, which means you can watch the entire movie online.


  1. Will, I'm sorry I missed seeing Sita Sings the Blues with you! It sounds unique and entertaining and I'd love to see this version of the Ramayana; all I know about the story is from performances in Indonesia. I am very happy to hear I can watch it online for free!

  2. Hi, Will, I just discovered your blog. I was a partner in the Roxie 1976-1986, and indirectly saved the Victoria when the BofA wanted to tear it down. tjmayerinsf (at) yahoo
    Tom Mayer