Animator Nina Paley’s wit and imagination provide such unique delights that it seems almost churlish to complain that her second feature feels more like a tray of hors d’oeuvres than a full meal — even if it’s inspired by the traditional ritual feast of Passover Seder. But “Seder-Masochism” plays as considerably less of an organic whole than her prior “Sita Sings the Blues,” no doubt in large part because its concept evolved over several years’ course, during which some individual parts were released as standalone shorts.
Nonetheless, this antic nonbeliever’s take on the Book of Exodus is so full of invention that, moment-to-moment, its somewhat disjointed and episodic nature is easy to forgive. Even more than with “Sita,” music rights issues (Paley is a professed “open source activist” and “copyright abolitionist”) will complicate any prospective commercial distribution. But as that film ultimately found a substantial audience despite such hurdles, so should this latest, which is already available in sizable chunks on YouTube with its creator’s full blessing.
Cecil B. DeMille may have had Charlton Heston, a whole lot of extras, and the entire Paramount backlot to create Biblical spectacle. But one-woman-band Paley’s version of the Israelites’ founding myth is a mix-tape musical that’s all-singing and all-dancing, with the Ten Plagues alone soundtracked by a roster of artists encompassing 78-rpm blues, hip-hop, punk, 1970s pop rock, Oingo Boingo, and the Beatles.
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The Burning Bush and Egyptian hieroglyphics croon in Louis Armstrong’s voice; Moses’ sheep tap-dance; a defiant Pharaoh belts Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive.” In one of the most inspired sequences, the Jews flee across the parted Red Sea in search of the Promised Land to the tune of the New Seekers’ Me Decade anthem of children’s self-actualization, “Free to Be… You and Me.” Even circumcision turns into a Busby Berkeley-like choreographic event.
For all the whimsy and impudence of her presentation, Paley’s Old Testament is also, like the episodes from the Ramayana depicted in “Sita,” a bloodbath — a formative example of the fact that “serving God” has often taken the form of war-mongering, persecution, and vengeance. And as in that marvelous feature, those patriarchal imperatives are usually seized at the deliberate cost of female suffering and subjugation.
“Sita” created a direct bridge between its ancient mythological heroine’s trials and a modern feminism by introducing a sort of argumentative Greek chorus to debate the old tale’s meaning throughout, as well as portraying a Squigglevision’d Paley herself in distress after the sudden demise of her marriage. Those different layers created a sense of constant, complex dialogue between epochs.
“Seder-Masochism” feels more piecemeal, its parts never quite coalescing — like a series of shorts stitched together rather than one unified entity. The film begins and ends with striking graphics animating global representations of the essential mother-creator counterintuitively (and sometimes violently) ripped from most major religions over the course of time. But Paley has admitted she didn’t realize the project was really “about patriarchy and suppression of the Goddess” until several years in, after she’d already created much of the Moses material.
Jesus himself (in the form of an animated 17th-century Last Supper painting) instructs us on aspects of Seder in the bland voice of a 1950s instructional record for family listening. A first-person element is present again in a 2011 conversation Paley recorded with her since-deceased father Hiram. The two may be depicted onscreen as sacrificial goat and flowing-bearded Holy Father, respectively, yet their affectionately combative chat runs a gamut from the secular family’s variable attitudes towards Jewish traditions to Dad chiding “You need money to live, Nina… I would have been happy if you’d been more financially independent by now.”
At once parodic and serious in addressing history, culture, religion, and morality, Paley’s aesthetic choices are just as delightfully wide-ranging as her intellectual ones. As in “Sita,” the primary visuals are a vividly colored, deliberately flat ’toonscape of winsomely big-eyed figures amidst busy chorus lines of warriors, Pharisees, livestock, and whatnot, all moving according to simple, rudimentary animation cycles. Her desktop wizardry also breathes life into ancient Gaia sculptures, includes elements of stop-motion, collage, and line drawing, has episodes of pure Saul Bass-like abstraction, and briefly makes even embroidery come “alive.” A few snippets of archival live-action footage illustrate the grievous harm that mankind continues to inflict on itself “in God’s name.”
Although at times her mashup sensibility grows too gimmicky and cute here, Paley’s jukebox -musical Exodus — which does make room for the actual “Theme from ‘Exodus,’” with Pat Boone-penned lyrics sung with consummate Middle American earnestness by Andy Williams — can hardly be resisted when it truly clicks, as it often does. Episodic and uneven, “Seder-Masochism” nonetheless wields its satirical brush with sufficient aplomb that you may never hear again Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come” or even 10cc’s bubblegum bliss-out “The Things We Do For Love” without feeling a twang of patriarchal religious guilt.