Monday, July 16, 2007

Tales of the Benshi (1)

For poets used to reading to twenty other poets on a good night, facing the audience at a neo-benshi event can be a heady thing. Brandon Downing's film + poetry night sucked nearly 100 into the heatbox of St. Mark's in late May; Konrad Steiner followed suit this month in San Francisco with a neo-benshi program that drew a line down the block. (The theater at ATA holds close to 80 when the fire marshal's dozing; another 40 had to be turned away.)

I'm not sure what it is exactly that accounts for the excitement around neo-benshi, which puts writers in front of films both pop and obscure, sound muted, to fill in the silence with their own dialogue. My hunch is it's the film part that warms the seats. For jaded poetry audiences, it's a chance to see writers whose work on the page they probably already know, or could easily find without going to a reading, stretching to fit their skills to a more accessible cultural form. For the filmies, it's a safe zone to see new poets, who are kept within the familiar conventions and time sense of the movies. (I haven't seen anyone perform to an experimental film yet—not sure how well it'd work without a celluloid bourgeois to sort of épater—and few performances go much past 10 minutes.)

Konrad's event did an especially good job of showcasing the vastly different approaches the form's managed to accommodate so far. The films themselves stretched across the century: one from 1920, two from our aughts, one each from the Fifties, the Sixties, the Eighties, and the Nineties. Each film—this may also be part of the form's appeal—had a strong narrative pull, or at least a pregnant dramatic situation (a man sick in bed, a woman sobbing on a park bench) that evoked the shape of a story for the performers to color in.

Stephanie Young took on probably the most 'de-storied' film of the night. Her clip opened with a hyper-dramatic incident from an Audrey Hepburn picture (what's the late one where she's in the Alps, eating lunch on a terrace, and the camera pans in one clean sweep from the indifferent winter peaks, to Hepburn in sunglasses and chic toque dining alone, to a sinister Lüger thrust from a sun umbrella, releasing a jet of water full in her face when the trigger's pulled?), then cut to a scene from Tsai Ming-liang's "Vive L'Amour," where a woman simply walks briskly across the terrain of a bleak modern city to Young's interpolated sounds of modern combat, over which she read text on the green zone in Baghdad; film crit comparing Tsai to Western filmmakers like Antonioni; and a portion of Judith Butler's Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence.

After setting these multiple frames around the action, she gave over the last third of her performance to a long, wordless scene in which the woman sits down on a park bench and cries, digs a tissue out of her purse, lights a cigarette, all with the sound off, so that the benshi has to cry for her, or through her, a kind of proxy grieving that seemed to express our own helpless distance from the tragedies we see every day on screens. The force of the performance was in the way Young used the benshi’s conventional detachment from the movie, her putative function as the narrator or ‘film-teller,’ to reflect on our own remove from the war in Iraq, and from the consequences of violence generally.

For his neo-benshi piece last year, Alan Bernheimer took a scene from a Charlie McCarthy/Mr. Ed film and simply delivered the dialogue for the characters exactly as it appears in the movie. I was impressed at how powerful an experience it was to hear a live voice synched with a moving image, even (especially) where the voiceover would seem to be redundant. Young used "Vive L'Amour" in a similar way to explore the ambiguities of mediated grief by surrendering the narrator’s right to say anything for the character on screen at all. As she cried with the woman, she made the represented present by performing the act of mourning—and, by the end of the piece, just breathing—for someone else. It was the one of the most original takes on the film-telling genre I’ve seen, and those minutes will be with me for a long time to come.


Michael said...



Alli Warren said...

Stephanie's performance was so, so powerful...