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Poets Theater "re-narrates" film classics

Reverse-engineering the movies has always been a favorite trope of postmodern writing and performance art, but at Wednesday night's "Cinema Cabaret" at Hallwalls, poet-performers from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Buffalo collaborated on new variations seemingly attuned to the current cultural appetite for mash-ups and self-conscious "hybridization" in the arts.

In a news release for the event, Buffalo Poets Theater co-founder David Hadbawnik had described the performances as "live film narration," an "inversion" of traditional filmic production involving use of "Benshi" techniques of oral interpretation adapted from Japan and Korea during the silent film era.
 
To describe the resulting work as "Neo-Benshi" in its effect is perhaps a bit of an understatement. An observer expecting these performances to incorporate a certain degree of interpretive improvisation might be surprised at how tightly scripted ("pre-written" as one questioner in the post-event Q & A would put it) the performances were, to the point where they asserted their own "authority" over the film footage.
 
Using appropriated cinematic material, select scenes and remixed montages from popular films (for the most part, classics like Mike Nichols's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly,  Fran├žois Truffaut's 400 Blows, Stanley Kramer's On the Beach and Steven Spielberg's Minority Report ) were shown muted and "re-narrated" live with scripts that leaned heavily toward counter-narratives and subtextual readings of what was happening onscreen. 
 
An introduction featured San Francisco-based filmmaker and curator Konrad Steiner -- an influential producer of Neo-Benshi live film narration events in many venues, including the San Francisco Poets' Theater -- whose witty "A Nightcap" and "Cheap Shot" were subversive readings of the Nichols and Spielberg films, respectively, and Los Angeles-based poet and translator Jen Hofer, whose eloquent re-narrations of Kiss Me Deadly and On the Beach wielded a more openly political edge. Then Buffalo-based Holly Melgard and Joey Yearous-Algozin -- both Ph.D. candidates in the UB Poetics Program -- took a more semiotic approach to a looped scene from 400 Blows.
 
Perhaps the most contrapuntal approach to these alternate film narratives was "81 Myths" presented by Robin Brox and Todd Mattina, a Buffalo literary scene couple who engaged in a lively "interrogation" of footage from the surreal 1981 adult film Night Dreams that deconstructed its gauzy rape fantasies with two divergent narratives, one of which was based on Greek myth, the other on a feminist reading of pornography as an instrument of subordination.
 
"Cinema Cabaret" was just the latest project undertaken by Buffalo Poets Theater, an ensemble founded by Hadbawnik and Michael Sikkema last year to explore and expand the body of work composed as avant-garde theater by post-World War II American poets exploring the performative aspects of language and poetry. How Poets Theater compares (other than in lineage) to other forms of experimental theater and performance art continues to be an open question, but one that Hadbawnik and company seem intent on fully exploring.
 
--R.D. Pohl
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