Neo-Benshi is the practice of producing live alternate voice-overs for movies. ... 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 ... Currently, it is finding a resurgence among experimental poets in the San Francisco Bay area and Los Angeles.
The Wikipedia entry for "Neo-Benshi"
It is two and a half years ago. Dennis Somera has just invited his email list to a performance of a new art form called "Neo-Benshi" at California College of Arts, suspiciously (to me) performed by a passel of experimental poets. Dennis is known among a fairly limited group of people as the poet who shaves his head onstage: a signature piece he's been performing for years. Since he has a full head of beautiful, thick, black hair, which seems to grow at a rate of about two inches a month, this is a dramatic thing. This is not all there is to Dennis's performances. When he sends out his infrequent calls to come see him stutter and pun, you simply go.
Dennis riffs off of West Side Story the only performer to dip a toe into colonization. Others choose more obscure films; it is as I thought: another excuse for experimental poets to deconstruct all the meaning out of formerly integral things. And yet, and yet. They are so funny about it. We've all seen Mystery Science Theater. We're none of us that funny or we'd all be doing it, wouldn't we? We didn't realize how much of the humor lies inherent in the tension between live dialogue and recorded moving image; between a familiar flick, and the dry, incredibly sophisticated commentary a people raised on film can make. For the first time, I leave a poetry event wanting more.
It is a week and a half ago. Jaime Cortez has just invited his posse to a performance in the series "Neo-Benshi Cabaret" at Artists' Television Access, organized by Konrad Steiner and Irina Leimbacher of kino21. Jaime is a visual artist and fiction writer -- a narrativist in word and image. The other performers are a comfortable interleaving of poets and pluralists. Thus, the cabaret has more diverse purposes than a demonstration of poetic sensibility and post-structural acrobatics, although those are here, too.
The audience has come to laugh and, once given a taste of it, isn't much inclined to do otherwise. Poetic ruminations over the top of Bergman, Jeremiah Johnson, and Mary Poppins are praised over cigarettes, but get less traction on the spot. Happier is the reception of a poetic Logan's Run and a Charlie Brown Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. But the evening belongs to Douglas and Nicole Kearney's Rent-An-Oriental Indiana Jones and Cortez's Clinton/Obama Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?.
This is the leading edge of a new art form: what in another performance medium would be rather obvious racial satire, acquires an astonishing power in the duel between live performance and familiar sequence. Here, my dears, is our opportunity to make our failing flailing away at intransigent stereotypes strong and fresh again. Forget the pointless lily-gilding of adding poetry to filmic silences. It will be a long time of power-picking out the obvious before Neo-Benshi is ready to get subtle. My gods, this is an art form with potential mass appeal.
Hold on to your hats. There's a new sheriff in town.
Dennis Somera is one of two featured at The (New) Reading Series at 21 Grand. His technology has failed so far, the overhead projector sharing the alternative formatting of his written word burning out its motor before our very eyes. He's a little flustered and unprepared. He moves on to the video projector and asks the audience to close their eyes, feel their bodies, and be in the moment. Smartass.
The moment I hear him begin chanting "common ground/comin' around," I know some head shaving is about to start. The audience obediently keeps its eyes closed and therefore misses most of the performance in which the previous reader, Anna Moschovakis, cuts off, then shaves the equally thick, glossy, and long hair of Dennis's friend? cousin? who is wearing a white shirt upon which is projected the head-shaving/bootcamp sequence from Full Metal Jacket.
Every time that I've seen this performance over the years, Dennis adds another layer. Tonight, it is so loaded down, it is almost done; surely it is done; finally it's in its final form? There's the play on words, the endless chanting, the occasional throw-in of related phrases, the seated (sometimes kneeling) man losing his hair to a woman with clippers, the mirroring of Dennis at the mic in his white shirt and Dennis's proxy on the carpet in his white shirt, the audience with its eyes wide shut, the allusion to their familiarity with New Ageiness, and finally, the projection of a familiar film that turns this years-old piece, suddenly, into a Benshi-piece. Is this the straw that breaks its back?