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.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.
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.
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.