David Larsen and Neo-Benshi

Three blocks from Independence Hall in Philadelphia is the Powel House, named after the city’s first mayor, Samuel Powel, who bought it in 1769, four years after it was built. George and Martha Washington dined there. So did John Adams. On the evening of January 26th, 2007, San Francisco poet David Larsen took over, owned the Powel House with his amazing reading, capped off with a neo-benshi finale. It’s a mystery why David Larsen doesn’t have a larger following. K. Silem Mohammad wrote me in an email, “LRSN embodies just about everything I value in contemporary poetry: raw wit, savage intimacy, urgent strangeness. His frequent use of handwritten text is one material index of these qualities, and his near-monologic immediacy of address is another. It's impossible to feel unscathed by his work, to remain aloof from its confrontational embrace. In addition to his incomparable book The Thorn (Faux Press, 2005), he has published dozens of striking handmade chapbooks that showcase both his graphic and verbal artistry (which are often inseparable one from the other). Much of this creative work reveals the influence of his groundbreaking doctoral studies in pre-Islamic Arabic literature and culture at UC Berkeley. He is a tireless supporter of his poetic community: he was the editor for several years of The San Jose Manual of Style, possibly my favorite poetry journal ever, and he currently curates the New Yipes Reading Series in Oakland, CA. If LRSN did not exist, it would be necessary to cut off our own heads with wickedly curved scimitars and dump them in a river.” Projecting 11 minutes of the film Troy (2004) onto a dining room wall, including its windows and yellow velvet curtains, David Larsen narrated this Hollywood version of the Iliad, book 3:

It is the clitoral tip of Asia.
You don’t believe me?
that’s a Hittite word, Assuwa
for the windy NW corner of Anatolia
where stood gleaming Tarawissa
the Hittite word for Troy


She stands there for 60 seconds exactly
which you would know if you were
sitting there with me
watching and re-watching this scene from Troy
wearing out the remote control

That’s Paris on the right, the
dreamy abductor
his brother’s trying to tell him something
Yeah whatever


oh wow
what a bad scene
I just realized I’m going to die learning
about myself in the hardest way
this is no pony party
actually it kind of is, is
what makes it all so horribly real
as if the sound were cutting back in

how much more time is this
going to take
my heart is in my ears
its every report a separate agony
the fight is in my heart
my heart is upside-down


I am entering my most suggestible period
just now so check it out

the sound has gone out
the arrow shot heavenward has shivered
into a quarter of a million
Fuck Face Advances
boasting of his scratch upon my thigh
but I am ready for the cut from
both our bodies
the raised welts in anger
the severing blow

Not even the leopard’s fury is such
nor the lion’s
nor the ravening boar’s
as the peacock’s at his mirror
with his feathers all pulled away
so pick your battles, grandpa
I don’t think you’re ready for this


I’m sick of it
and the tap-tap tapping of the
spear-points all around
what the hell for
why should I care what this stupid
armored turtle thinks
I’m like the grinning crescent on the
flying flag flying over these ruins
face down in front of my community
the hero done with acting like
a can of cat food was a kill

Some say it is the violent
death of an opponent
others the soothing touch of ointment
to a fissure in the skin
while others name the first cigarette
at the end of a long illness
of all things out on the black earth
the most beautiful
but I say
I say

I emailed Larsen to ask him about neo-benshi. He explained:
The art form’s acknowledged starting point is in Korea and Japan of the silent film era. Benshi is a Japanese word referring to the oral "interpreter" who performed a live narrative accompaniment to silent movies, in lieu of showing intertitles with dialogue, etc. In Korean the practice is known as pyônsa. "Neo-benshi" is the name that's been popularized by Konrad Steiner and others for the current practice/genre/game of producing alternate voice-overs for "talkies."

Linh Dinh: How long have you been doing it? Where did you get this idea?

David Larsen: I was approached by Konrad Steiner through Roxi Hamilton back in 2005. At first I said no because it sounded like so much work (and sure enough it took 3 days solid to write that 11-minute piece you saw). Without their urging it never would have occurred to me to do it.

LD: How many people are employing this method? Can we call it a trend? A fad?

DL: The same night I performed it in Philly, there were eight people in San Francisco doing exactly the same thing. Among experimental poets in the Bay Area it's definitely a fad, and they're doing it in Los Angeles too. I performed it the next night at Betalevel in LA's Chinatown, where they do a series called “Da Benshi Code.” New problems with sound & projection come up every time it’s performed, but that just adds to the “live” effect. The only thing I’ll never try again is a throat mike. I'd rather perform with no amplification.

LD: Who are the better practitioners of this?

DL: Hard to say as I haven't seen more than one performance by a single performer. (Hopefully someone will write a notice about the January 26th performances in San Francisco.) The best neo-benshi performance I’ve seen was Mac McGinness' reading of a script by Norma Cole along with a segment of the film JUDEX (1963) by Georges Franju.

LD: Has this phenomenon been critically appraised?

DL: I think Walter Lew has written something about it.

I phoned Walter Lew and was told that he's been performing neo-benshi pieces since the 1980s. He has also introduced the method to his students at Mills College in Oakland. Although he's excited by the increasing popularity of this technique, and applauds many of the performances, Walter'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. There are certainly antecedents closer to home, such as Walter K. Lew himself, Beavis and Butthead, and What's Up, Tiger Lily? It's clear that neo-benshi needs to be examined more critically since, to paraphrase Kent Johnson, its aesthetics haven't caught up with the practices.


Unknown said...

I just saw Rodney Koeneke do a terrific neo-Benshi performance at a reading here in Portland a few weeks ago. Delightful.

Jamba Dunn said...

A not exactly Benshi memory, but something that comes up for me when I think about the Benshi.

While living in Oakland we often went to see movies in a part of town where there was always someone talking back to the screen or explaining to their friends ideas and thoughts on plot, character, and inner conflict.

During Lord of the Rings the couple beside us, who were fooling around in their chairs under a blanket, started a “Who is that dude? That’s that one dude” dialogue that lasted every scene from the moment Frodo traipsed out of the shire to the very ending. “Who is that dude?” one would say, looking back up at the screen. “That’s that one dude,” the other would respond, clearing up any confusion.

During a screening of “Dances with Wolves” the woman behind me, who was alone, created a vocal narrative for any scene without one. “They took his hat. They have his hat. That’s ‘his’ hat. That’s ‘my’ hat, he’s saying. It's ‘my’ hat. Why did they take his hat?”

During the Mummy several people in the audience elucidated the script with incredibly detailed knowledge of Egyptology, often taking me away from the movie and into a world of oversights by the filmmaker.

While not very neo-Benshi, I loved the commentary and the playfulness with which the community approached motion pictures. The “he can do that but he can’t do that?” thread of disbelief that seemed to hold together the blockbusters always reminded me of my father pointing out cars from the wrong time that peppered every retro film we watched together.

Linh Dinh said...

In Corriere della Sera, May 5th, 2006, there's an article,
"Cina, il partito ordina: vietato sputare," "China, the Party orders: no more spitting." I translate the beginning:

“Spitting on the ground, on the streets or in an airplane--yes, even on airplanes--or at the supermarket, is a most common daily habit. What about Sars? Who cares. In restaurants, there are those who clean their teeth with their fingernails, then suck in. Who cares. Or those in movie theaters who turn on the cellphone and calmly narrate in a loud voice the film’s storyline.”

“Sputare per terra, per strada o in aereo — sì anche in aereo — o al supermercato, è la più normale fra le abitudini quotidiane di vita. C'è stata la Sars? Chissenefrega. Poi, al ristorante, c'è chi si pulisce i denti con le unghie e risucchia. Chissenefrega. O chi in una sala cinematografica accende il cellulare e si mette tranquillamente a raccontare a voce alta la storia del film.”

Aha! Neo-benshi in Beijing, with cellphone as a sort of hyperlink. Now that’s avant garde!

Anonymous said...

David pointed me to this entry on neo-benshi. I just wanted to mention a couple interesting historical points.

Midori Sawato, the pre-eminent performer of Japanese film narration now touring in the West, said at a Q&A that American and Russian films were *not* narrated in Japan b/c the montage went too quickly -- they told the story visually/musically, and the benshi style didn't fit.

Also, i have seen references to film narrators in Thailand, Taiwan, Persia (Iran) and pre-nazi Germany. I once told David that they were also in Morocco, but i was misremembering an article i read about Moroccan storytellers that *compared* them to "the movies."

I personally don't think of this form as 'avant garde' at all, for the very reason jamba dunn cited: people do it all the time! I remember the same thing from urban theaters in Chicago.

Even Guy Madden had Isabella Rossellini narrating his neo-silent film at NYFF this last fall!

And there's 'El Automóvil Gris' which has been touring, from Mexico.

But the way they've been doing it in SF, it's more DIY, like karaoke. *You* make the movie from a piece of another movie.

Jamba Dunn said...


Excuse my uncollected thoughts. I’m running a high fever today, possibly from reading too much Deleuze.

I don't know what's more intriguing, the social acceptance of spitting or the idea of narrating a film via cell phone?

This latter idea seems to link back to our earlier discussion on private vs. public selves: narration as a parallel yet divergent story reforming the concept of the private as an overlay of the public.

Is Benshi a form of graffiti, both unacceptable and unavoidable in the public sphere, that casts 'movie' as a closed form competing with the recontextualizing narrative of the individual?

Is the movie cast as an aberrant form of expression (art) that requires domination by the individual narrative, which is itself multiplied and amplified out into the public sphere?

Is this a demonstration of the disenfranchised individual voicing opposition to dominant narrative, or an example of the individual voice as a sublimated machine of the State?

Linh Dinh said...

Yo Jamba,

If the movie is "an aberrant form of expression (art) that requires domination by the individual narrative," then so is the poetry reading, especially so, since most of them are all about domination, with little social or entertainment values. In any case, the movie theater is certainly an aberrant form of public space. Traditionally, when 100+ people gather in a public space, a party, carnival or riot would break out, but in a movie theater, all of the ritualistic or carthatic violence, sex and flirting is onscreen. In places with dim notions of private spaces, like Vietnam or Oakland, people talk away in movie theaters.

Turn off the lights, let's introduce ourselves, just like they did in the Joy Rio, behind the frayed velvet rope, high up on the balcony. It's no mystery, really. That's what Pee Wee Herman did, introducing himself, to himself.

Jamba Dunn said...


This may well mark the first instance of Pee Wee on the exchange.

Re: poetry readings. I saw the Denver Slam! team perform last weekend. Now, I do not like slam poetry, but I was surprised that most readings were 2 or more people on stage at once and most performances included call and response from key audience members. This may not change things since it is still a performance, a narrative that does not include the aberrant voice of the individual. It's more the voice of oligarchy.

I wonder about "dim notions of private spaces". I mean yes, but this does not call into account the political struggle of the individual. Perhaps I am making more of this than I should, but there have to be people who are upset by talking in the movies and, for them, I see it less as a dim notion of public space and more an attack, hence graffiti, against the dominant narrative--even at the expense simply recasting the dominant narrative.

Although now that I've said all this, I am beginning to understand your idea of the aberrant. Something about early Beat readings and motorcycle gangs comes up for me. The loss of a social understanding of the group as a potential political gathering, a formless rhizomic entity without comprehendible rules and requiring domination. Yes, in this case the one off is the public space where we can Joy Rio in public.

I would love to work out a clearer understanding of this. Trouble is, my fever is back so I'm signing off for now.