Religion is supposed to hurt a little. That’s how you know its working. Like a medicated balm, first it stings and then it soothes. Animator Nina Paley maybe doesn’t quite see it that way. She explores Exodus, Passover, and her own family’s ambiguous relationship with Judaism from a feminist perspective in Seder-Masochism (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Sitges Film Festival.
Paley’s endlessly inventive feature debut, Sita Sings the Blues, was such a blast of pure animated delight, it is inevitable her sophomore feature will look like disappointment in comparison, so let’s try to set Sita aside for the present moment. In some ways, Paley repeats the same formula, mixing animated mediums, as well as the sacred and the profane. The net results are nowhere near as charming, but there are plenty of raucously funny and strangely beautiful moments.
Paley goes Old Testament on us, but her soundtrack is hip and hummable, including Gene Kelly & Donald O’Connor’s “Moses Supposes,” Louis Armstrong’s “Go Down Moses,” Josh White’s “Blood Red River Blues,” John Lennon’s “Woman,” Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time is Gonna Come,” and Pat Boone’s “The Land is Mine.” Frankly, watching Paley match up music to each segment is a good deal of fun. In fact, it is probably safe to say this film can claim the greatest use of “Free to Be You and Me,” probably ever.
On Paley’s drawing board and animation imagers, every notable event in Exodus eventually segues into a lavish MGM-style production number, which is cool. At its best, it is a slightly tasteless religious comedy, in the tradition of Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I and Wholly Moses!—the sort of amiably tasteless film that probably couldn’t be made with live actors anymore.
Sometimes Seder is quite droll, but there are times when Paley sabotages herself by introducing real news footage, including scenes of carnage from the many wars of self-defense Israel has been forced to fight. Honestly, nothing kills the mood quicker than September 11th footage. No matter what her intentions that just creates all kinds of bad karma.
Still, there are some droll moments in the interviews Paley recorded with her late father, wherein he explains why he still observes the traditions of his Jewish heritage, even if his own faith is a bit iffy. She also creates some wonderfully sly and subversive images. However, the film lacks the joyous uplift that made Sita so special (ultimately, there is just no avoiding comparisons).
Paley is an extraordinary animator, who is drawn to big, significant themes. However, Seder will probably be regarded over time as a relatively minor work from her. It is worth seeing for her visual artistry and taste in music, but fans of Sita should temper their expectations. Amusing but not transcendent, Seder-Masochism screens this coming Tuesday (10/9) during Sitges and Friday (10/19) as part of Animation is Film in Los Angeles.