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Movietelling, also known as 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." The setting was Philadelphia's 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. 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

[…]


When I emailed Larsen, he explained that "benshi" is a Japanese word referring to the "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. 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.
Larsen then steered me towards Walter K. Lew, who has been performing movietelling 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.

Vietnamese-American writer and critic Thuy Dinh (no relations) talks about this practice in the Vietnamese context:

I have heard about orators reading/narrating films. Theaters showing foreign films in Vietnam in the 30s through the 50s had done this. Back in 1996, when we did the Vietnamese Film Program for the Asian American Film Festival, I invited Mr. Than Trong Ky to be one of our guest speakers. Mr. Ky was chockful of both Vietnamese and Western film knowledge, he himself a film director in pre-1975 South Vietnam. (His claim to fame was a wartime melodrama called Chân Tr

Originally Published: April 26th, 2008

Linh Dinh was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1963, came to the U.S. in 1975, and has also lived in Italy and England. He is the author of two collections of stories, Fake House (Seven Stories Press 2000) and Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press 2004), and the novel Love...

  1. April 26, 2008
     Chris

    Larsen, Steiner, and others will be taking part in a neo-benshi mini-festival in Portland (Ore.) in the very near future.

  2. April 27, 2008
     Jeremy James Thompson

    Linh,
    I'm happy to see movietelling show up on Harriet Blog. "Misnarration" is a fine way to put it; an approach to poetics is often misunderstanding language.
    To add to your list of more recent movietelling antecedents, check out Guy Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain (2006). Related: YouTube is home to a huge variety of subversive film dubs. The scripts are usually pretty haphazard, if not improved (like the Gavrilov Translators of the Soviet). But I've enjoyed some of them. User "tntstudios1" has made a name for himself doing Harry Potter Dubs.
    You asked Larsen about it being a fad, and I keep wondering if it WAS. Walter's putting together a summer event (in NYC), once again focusing on movietelling, but incorporating other forms of cinepoetics as before. But I haven't found anything on The Neo-Benshi group since their Redcat Performance. LA's Da Benshi Code seems to be the most consistent, operating more as a place for artists to try out movietelling, rather than a venue where frequent practitioners of movietelling go to perform. Also, my favorite dubs are the GI JOE PSA Dubs. They've been reposted all over YouTube.
    Sometimes, I think the medium would be more effective (& sustainable) if it infiltrated more conventional poetry performance venues (i.e. regular reading series). Or as part of film festivals. Or at art gallery openings.
    Its isolation influences its too occasional status.
    Have you performed "A Smooth Life" at poetry readings? If not, is it something you would do?
    Also, although I can appreciate your disdain for the obvious/literal, I often find subversion in movietelling to be nearly as formulaic as a "straightforward" narration of a film. Some performers seem to rely on series of punch lines, always rapping up the same joke. It is as often as banal as "look, I'm saying something inconsistent with the direct action of the film your watching." In an instance such as this, the performer relies heavily on the popular knowledge of the film & personages (actors/celebrities) within. It can become like a tabloid full of tweaked captions subservient to paparazzi pictures.
    (Also posted at wwwwsonneteighteencom.blogspot.com)

  3. April 28, 2008
     Jim K.

    "Hercules Returns" is a voiceover comedy
    that was a huge hit in Australia. Aussie
    voices interpreting the pictures without
    being sure what the Italian dialog was.

  4. April 28, 2008
     Tony Green

    An interesting practice, a kind of ekphrasis. Akin also to writing speech-bubble for sculptures and paintings, a cartoonist's game, can be a lot of fun, but also liable to get overrun with obvious kinds of silliness.