The Art of Misnarration

Neo-benshi is the art of (mis)narrating a film. I encountered it for the first time in January of 2007, when I saw David Larsen's "Paris of Troy," a verbal deformation of the 2004 Brad Pitt vehicle. Larsen then steered me towards Walter K. Lew, who has been performing neo-benshi pieces since the 1980s. He also introduced the method to his students at Mills College in Oakland. Although Lew's excited by the increasing popularity of this technique, and applauds many of the performances, he's uncomfortable with the term "neo-benshi," since it exoticizes and orientalizes, he feels, a method that had to be widespread during the silent film era. Lew explains:
A fascinating, oft-neglected fact of world film history is that nearly everywhere movies have been regularly shown there was an era in which they were screened with live speech by orators or voice actors. The katsuben of Japan and pyônsa of Korea were the most celebrated forms of this once-global practice. Sometimes praised during their heyday as “poets of the dark,” in Korea the most iconoclastic “movietellers” risked imprisonment or worse to share their interpretations of films with local communities.

Perhaps they would have approved of the wit and freedom with which [contemporary] poets have chosen to recast the 20th century’s most powerful and oppressive artistic form.
More recent antecedents to neo-benshi include Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? and Beavis and Butthead. As a relatively new and evolving genre, neo-benshi is in its exploratory (and perhaps most exciting) stage, with almost no critical attention as yet. To paraphrase Kent Johnson, its aesthetics haven't caught up with the practices.

After watching performances in NYC this weekend, I'd say that a neo-benshi artist's two main tasks are, in order of importance, A) Compose a narration B) Perform this narration in public. He or she also has the option of recutting the film and/or inserting new footage and/or soundtrack, which requires a third set of skills, that of the filmmaker's. Pivoted on a film, a successful neo-benshi narration surprises and enlightens viewers with a series of verbal tangents that riff on, play with, subvert the shown images. A weak narration insults us with obvious observations. Literalness annoys. The thrill is in the divergence.


1 comment:

j.henry said...

hey linh -- brad neely's side-splitting "wizard people, dear reader" is an absolutely essential piece in this development (along with the situationist detournement "the dialectics of bricks" & "girls of kamare" (both not incidentally, i would think, situated in asia) -- neely's piece ought to still be up at illegalart.org (the mp3 wch you can mash up to yr home harry potter -- rumor has him best performing live often in austin over the course of a six pack). it would be interesting to kno if the situationist films were ever live-narrated mystery theater 2000 style.

also, here in tokyo katsuben & live narration of silent films is still a popular cinematic fringe culture! there's even one particular benshi diva that does it classically with literally dozens of seperate character voices -- it's incredible!

anyhow, enjoy posts here tonight -- i also commented on an old post re: conceptual blogs. -- skittish, i deleted after noticing how long, but i'll paste here cause it may still be of some retrospective interest to you anyhow.

keep on!

j.h c

: :

(some 6 months or so after the fact.. .


heya, interesting post & irony-clad chuckles how resourceful the comments box here for interesting creative work.

i'm interested in conceptual blogs & have put up a number -- i even used one to write a conceptual thesis at a prominent university!

the idea of totally free entirely alterable web-space delights & intrigues me. &with popular file-hosting programs, there is no limit to content a user can generate & in how many places. potential!

most interesting for me are works that interface directly with the blog structure / expand the virtual experience in some dynamic way / engage labyrinthine in the luxury of infinite free space.

some kids are doing good things: zac dempster's blogs are fantastic politically engaged expanded media works. lichtensteiger serially expands the blog-nets in incredible incremental ways. alan sondheim? lanny quarles? ted warnell?

most especially, the growing groupo blogsites like dirk vekenman's poetry kessel-lo poetzie & the related flux & zswound sites are totally essential. [guess these mostly came after]

but i'm new to this generally. dig this dialogue tho.

ought to've firsted thanks fer the many interesting tips above.

j.h c )