Sunday, April 27, 2008

film-telling vs. movietelling: (no subject)

Linh Dinh's recent post on Harriet Blog is about Movietelling. 
He shares his exchange with David Larsen, as well as excerpts of Vietnamese-American writer and critic Thuy Dinh conveying her thoughts on historical film narration in Vietnam.

See Linh Dinh's movietelling piece, A Smooth Life.

In other movietelling news...
Konrad Steiner goes Northwest with Neo-Benshi, along with David Larsen & other Bay Area poets. They're joining up with a group of Portland-based artists and writers to put on: The New Talkies: Portland-San Francisco Neo-Benshi Cabaret. (May 3rd)

Just when I was about to give up my regular google search for various film narration activities, this one comes along. Sadly, I won't be able to make it out to Portland this week, but perhaps someone will be kind enough to archive some of the event on-line. 

As excited as I am just to know this event is taking place, I was disappointed upon reading Konrad Steiner's "Curator's Statement." As I'm going to write about its specifics, I'll post it here:

The "benshi" is the name for the accomplished actor/writer who wrote scripts to narrate live to projected films in Japan, where the profession reached its commercial and popular apex in the 1920s, more than in any other country, mainly because of a prosperous and prolific Japanese film industry.

There have been many variations of talking during a movie over the global history of film. The long tradition behind this current wave of interest in the form includes hecklers in theaters, dads in living rooms with their home movies, professional narrators of silent documentaries, the reknowned film-tellers in Europe and Asia, right up to TV shows like Jay Ward's Fractured Flickers in the 1960s and Mystery Science 
Theater in the 1990s.

The task of accompanying silent film is usually left to musicians. It becomes the task of writers to silence the talkies and revive the image whose meaning has been controlled and even restricted by the corporate culture of mass entertainment and mass profit. The benshi can take back the cinema, and anyone with a 
DVD player and a remote can give it a shot.

First off, I appreciate his anyone-can-do-it conclusion, as well as mentioning that there are ways in which a kind of spectator film narration is frequently taking place as part of a casual practice (i.e. home movies, hecklers etc). But in general, these qualities are spliced with a contrary agenda, as he opens his statement with a "benshi" definition that spends more time qualifying its dominance as a practice than it does actually wrestling with its definition. 

In an attempt to diffuse the exclusifying effects of the previous paragraph, he begins the second paragraph with a statement that translates something like: Even though the "benshi" were the predominant and most popular of the film narrators, many other people have "talked during a movie." The humor is more insulting than insightful. He may as well have begun that first sentence, "Of course, there have been many variations..." 

Among those who talk during movies, he counts "film-tellers in Europe and Asia." 
"film-tellers" vs. "movietellers." Is this similar to the semantic implications implied by saying "I've just screened a film" vs. "We went to the movies?" Or is there some other distinction? As far as I'm concerned, there is no difference, but why the distinction?

As a side note, some of those early practitioners of film narration in Europe and Asia were the Gavrilov Translators in Russia (a tradition maintained even into the 1980's), the Pyonsa in Korea, the Benzi in Taiwan, the Lector in Poland, as well as orators in Vietnam, France, and the Southern United States. All of this was happening at the same time, prompted by the influx of new mediums and technology (films), and the necessity of translation. 

In his final paragraph, Steiner heralds the subversive nature of the benshi. "The benshi can take back the cinema..." This is preceded by "It becomes the task of the writers to silence the talkies and revive the image whose meaning has been controlled and even restricted by the corporate culture of mass entertainment and mass profit." Let me juxtapose this with a more constructive quote from Linh Dinh's recent post on Harriet Blog: "Pivoted on a film, a successful movie telling narration surprises and enlightens viewers with a series of verbal tangents that riff on, play with, subvert the shown image." 

Subversion is built into the function/form of movietelling. Subversion is there in the act of altering the script, reissuing personalities, and crossing over from one medium to the next, but it's not always done well. Sometimes the effect is weak as a result of literal depictions, & sometimes the entire experience is an unpleasant collision between the filmmakers directed images and the film narrators trying to erase the effects of those images. Steiner claims, without providing any exception, that the images used by film narrators are dead of meaning and constrained by corporate culture, there value being primarily entertainment and profit. Steiner works for the SF Cinemateque... are the films they sponsor also considered waste to be recycled by a film narrator? 

One mark of a good film narrator/ movieteller/ neo-benshi, what have you, is a respect for the material being used: the film. I understand that some films are used because of their accepted lack of value, and that is a fine form of subversion, but that does not define the intent of film narration in general. 

The (katsuben) benshi were not subversive. They were not against the predominant culture or mass sentiments. More often than not, they were exceptionally pro-mass sentiments, in that pro-imperialist "popular apex in the 1920's" kind of way. Their performances, more so than their international contemporaries, maintained a definitively traditional practice, and most of the modern Japanese benshi continue to do so.

Walter Lew who heads up shadoWord (a contemporary production of movietelling and cinepoetics) provides an alternative perspective:

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.

I continue to explore movietelling as a practice. I spend an equal amount of time in search of instances of live film narration or creative dubbing. Though sometimes treated as a fad, this practice has roots around the globe, and its continued practice has the potential to bring together the cultural nuances and practical techniques behind each. It has also begun to provide a creative space where filmmakers, poets, performance artists, and musicians collaborate and improvise. I don't want to take back the cinema. If it was lost to me, I don't think I'd feel compelled to practice film narration. I want to confront cinema. I want to subvert specifically, rather than demonstrating my capacity to subvert a medium in general. 

For more information on movietelling and related subjects, follow the Movieteling label of this post to several previous posts pertaining to the subject(s).


Linh Dinh said...

Yo Jeremy,

Thuy Dinh is a she, by the way. You know, sooner or later, somebody ought to set up a website devoted exclusively to movietelling.

Jeremy James Thompson said...


Noted & amended. Thanks for the heads up.
As far as the website goes, I agree. I've tried to keep Wiki updated, & I'd like to eventually build up a historical wiki page for every separate history of movietelling I can find, as well a movietelling wiki.

A website is also in the works. I think a good place to begin will be the shadoWord launch this summer on Paolo Javier's Avenue E website. Hopefully, this will begin to put scripts, images, soundbites, and video pertaining to movietelling online, in a more consolidated way. But eventually does need its own sight, documenting nation wide events, acting as a bulletin, and linking to all outside online sources etc.


Jack Morgan said...

"Among experimental poets in the Bay Area it's definitely a fad"

Dillon Westbrook said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
konrad said...


One correction. I don't work for the SF Cinematheque.

Here is a pointer to the full set of notes that was written for this event.

The text you have analyzed here is a kind of "advertisement" and as such certainly isn't meant as a full description of the form in all its cultural variations. I happen to know about the benshi because of a particular practitioner who i got to watch perform and speak about her art. That inflects my knowledge and understanding of it. My participation in this activity stems from that specific introduction and understanding of the history -- i'm not trying to claim the history. And you can call it anything you like!

There is room enough for many interpretations of what can be done under the rubric of live film narration. Linh Dinh chooses one way, Walter Lew perhaps another. Every poet i've worked with has done something quite novel that i never would have thought of. I hope the idea is something that everyone with an interest takes up in their own way.

Regarding your remark about experimental film. I see narrative features as a kind of cultural repository of stories and variations of stories that we all share some understanding of. When you work with more formally conventional narrative, you can count on the skills we all have developed to read a film to some degree automatically even if we don't know it. The advantage of taking forms that are very legible by a broad community of people is that you can work with both the original meanings (latent and overt) and layer on new ones at the same time.

On the other hand often, (which is not to say always) that is what experimental film is trying to do with image and sound itself. Sure you could intervene in that situation also, but the codes that you're dealing with there are not so widely known, and so they are not quite so well disposed to leveraging for new meanings.

I hope you can see more performances of this work live rather than as recordings. Or if that's not happening, then that you have the possibility to take it upon yourself to make it happen with people you know and like to work with. It's quite challenging and enjoyble to do.

Jack Morgan said...

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I have way too much love for both L.D. and D.L., but to talk about definite fads of bay area "experimental poets" is precisely the problem with bay area poetics. And I threw up in my mouth a little and had to ask some of my friends if I was crazy. But I guess I am not.

I am holding back what I want to say because of how many times I have been burned by the mafia-type shit the people he's really talking about perpetrate against anyone who whispers a word of criticism about them, but it is just so offensive to everyone in the bay who is truly "experimental" and not following fads or other b.s. that friends of D.L. are following. ummmm... do experimental avant-garde poets and artists follow fads and trends?

Jeremy James Thompson said...


My apologies in regard to claiming your association with SF Cinemateque, a google search (not exactly solid research) seemed to verify your affiliation with them, but perhaps that was in some informal context.

I'd like to think I'm actively participating in this genre/community, as much as I am writing about it. I perform with Walter Lew as part of shadoWord Productions, and we continue to plan performance events.

I'm also familiar with active Benshi performers; only a few months ago I watched Midori Sawato perform a number of pieces in NY.

Perhaps there is always room for interpretations, but the space consumed by each interpretation continues to define the other interpreted spaces around it. The juxtoposition of those spaces is sometimes a point of overlap, and sometimes a point of conflict.

I've spent the last year searching for contemporary pracictices akin to live film narration. Sometimes it is as general as any instance where a practicioner is mediating in some capacity between an image (often moving) and an audience.

My frustration with your "advertisement" is its stance as a "curator's statement." I've now read your "Program Note," and while I still dislike your slanted historical prompt, I actually really like the descriptions and concerns addressed. The tone is so radically different than that of the "statement."

My primary concern revolves around the use of the term "Benshi," as definitive of practice. I understand you were exposed to the practice by way of a Benshi's performance, but we are not Benshi, and nor are we actually reviving the institution of the Benshi. Neither are we Pyonsa, or Lector or Gavrilov Translators. The "Neo" prefix, in conjunction with a particular practice, having evolved from dozens of other particular practices, defines any modern relocated, de/re-culturized practice as an homage to the initial practice, but subverted as an act of claiming it.

I am not trying to attack your practice, as such, but the framing of it, its exclusivity by way of attaching itself to an historically exclusive practice.

I admire your line:
"One goal is to get Theater back into Cinema." You follow this with remarks about the medium's ability to renew contexts and encourage individual and collective participation. I see this too. When Walter introduced me to this practice, I started writing again, precisely because I'd previously begun to feel so distant from actual participation (with media and people).

My desire is to advocate this practice as a mechanism, to be used along side and in conjunction with a long list of compatible/ comparable personalities and practices. The work presented at our first shadoWord show was only half comprised of movietelling. A documentary of sorts was literally narrated, a dubbed animation was shown, poetic text complimenting homemade video was shown, there was live jazz drumming over a powerpoint production of jazz musicians, overlaid with text, live/ improvised drawings were projected in response to live text being read.

I'm not suggesting you should encourage or practice these things yourself, but I am trying to convey the exclusivity of practice and dogma suggested by the term Neo-Benshi.

On another note, I can understand some kinds of distinctions between what is meant by experimental vs. non-experimental film (or anything). But I believe that most films exist between the two. I don't share your belief in "narrative features as a kind of cultural repository of stories and variations of stories that we all share some understanding of." Relying upon that kind of convention as a regular practice is more apt to endorse those conventions. In response to this tendency, I've tried to cultivate a practice that relies more upon responding to the immediate images and movements on the screen, and less upon the alleged pre-conceived cultural understanding of the situation(s) & movies.

I haven't meant any of this to be inflammatory, though I will admit that my initial post was reactionary. As someone who would be in attendance, were I in Portland, I'm glad you are including this program note, though I wish it were posted in place of your Curator's Statement.

Also, I am happy that this is finally taking place. This dialogue. I hope it continues in some form or another. I recognize that you've been working with this medium for several years, and despite my misgivings about "Neo-Benshi" as a sustainable and inviting title, I appreciate that you've given people (several of whom I know well), a space to perform in this capacity. Likewise, I hope you'll be able to make it to one of our shadoWord events.

I appreciate you taking time to read and respond.

Jeremy James Thompson said...


I'm not crazy about fads either. There are moments I've caught myself mid-trend, so to speak, where I've realized I so much wanted to try some particular thing just because some poet is having some success with it. On the other hand, I'm often compelled to try things I don't understand as a way to understand them. Learning to talk by talking. I've always leaned toward a phenomenological and formalist approach to art(ifacts). Historically speaking, it's hard to sparse out who wasn't following fads, especially among the "movements" of the various early 20th Century European Avant-Garde(s). Maybe there are deeply-rooted fads that we can't see: things we feel so genuinely about. Maybe they aren't fads. Maybe a lot of great things were made as fads or because of fads. When I was young, my parents thought poetry was a fad.

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