Seder-Masochism Review: Let's Dance
- Vassilis Kroustallis
US independent animation director Nina Paley makes the story of Exodus an overwhelming musical extravaganza, which still finds time to register its gender-based raison d' être.
In the beginning, there were 4 cups - oh, wait. In the beginning, there was the Goddess. Ok, let's start again. In the beginning, there was the director of the Question Copyright feature film Sita Sings The Blues, Nina Paley (who won the Annecy Crystal in 2008 for Best Feature Film).
Starting in 2012, and forming a series of webisodes on religion and the men (most of them to be found in Nina Paley's Vimeo channel), Seder-Masochism is another bold attempt (after the musical fantasy of Sita Sings the Blues) of the US director to associate the catastrophe that religion may bring with the male ego.
God is Male / He’s old, he’s white. / His beard is long, / His asshole’s tight. / He watches everything you do, / and then He throws the Book at you.
Written and sung by Paley herself, the whole task to be accomplished is even more hand-crafted tha Sita. The whole film was scripted, directed, animated and edited from her Central Illinois location. Whereas Sita reserved a voice for the film's main character, Seder-Masochism has Nina Paley removing all unnecessary voice casting.
There is an exception: Nina records (herself being animated as the sacrificial goat) her own conversation with her ailing father as the God in heaven (he died in 2012); he's the one to first provide a counterpoint to the official narration of the Hebrew Seder celebration, and the four cups of wine to be drunk during the Passover feast.
Here they are (in Wikipedia order): (1) Salvation from harsh labor (the 10 plagues); (2) Salvation from servitude; day the Jews left Egypt geographically and arrived at Ramses. (3) The splitting of the Red sea ; (4) Becoming a nation at Sinai.
What Seder-Masochism does with those is to reveal their bloody consequences (the 'drink my blood' story) and at the same time make them look daringly frivolous. Now, put into the mix an array of musical tracks that range from Louis Armstrong (Go Down Moses) to Gloria Gaynor (I will survive) to Pointer Sisters ('You Gotta Believe' is a stand-out in the film) to Guns'n'Roses to many many showtunes.
Finally, add a thorough study of art, where dancing figures and goddesses of Catal Huyuk, the Venus of Hohle Fels, the Venus of Willendorf become the dancers in a primordial dance. Now, the whole thing may become clear: Seder-Masochism is an ornamented, choreographed study on the many pitfalls and catastrophes of religious male education.
Choreography is a key term. Paley in exquisite modernist simplicity (animated in Moho Pro) the movements of Goddess, but also constantly moves her own cinematic frame to defy a male directorial gaze of solid boundaries, using all the tools that animation can supply. The original sin in Seder-Masochism is not the Serpent and the apple (a serpent is the necessary ornament of the Mother Goddess), but the Birth of Man, who needs to destroy what he is told to destroy. Nina Paley's target is not only patriarchy but the written word as well, and in the clip below she really hits the nail on the head.
Editing is not the strongest part of the film, and the juxtaposition of scenes would benefit from a stronger frame story that Paley herself provides. The wealth of cultural references will not always work to the film's advantage either. Comedy scenes (here the 10 plagues segment easily overshadows most of the 78-minute film) alternate with a more lyrical exposition, mostly sung by Bulgarian State Radio and Television Female Vocal Choir; they sing the film's opening number, Godmother Denkou, and provide the contrast with the male predominant voices.
It goes without saying that the film's politics is a direct attack on all religious manipulation, which allows for no excuses and makes no amends for its uniform critique of its diverse manifestations in different time slices of history (from Exodus to terrorist ISIS). The film's last number and music track, Next Year in Jerusalem / This Land is Mine (conceived and animated early in the production process) has a most shocking simplicity in its simplicity , and still remains so as the film's bookend.
The only way to stop these consequences, according to Seder-Masochism, is simply to ignore Books altogether, as Nina's father (Hiram Paley) advices. But still University books for young girls are important, and Nina should really get that University degree -if only to fight 21st century male manipulation. Till then, Seder-Masochism remains an entertainingly bold animated critique of things you'd better not left unexamined.