The Moviegoer: Film logs, benshi, and Pedro Costa – Chicago Reader

The Moviegoer is the diary of a local film buff, collecting the best of what Chicago’s independent and underground film scene has to offer.

For the past several years, my moviegoing log has been a Google Sheet; only somewhat more recently have I again taken to Letterboxd to log titles (having joined and then abandoned it during the pandemic, preferring then to keep my record less online), sometimes with a smattering of words about what I’ve watched. Since my editor approached me with the idea of doing a column about my viewing habits for the Reader, I’ve thought about how it might materialize in comparison to those other methods. Ultimately I’ve decided not to reinvent the wheel, to document my moviegoing as I always have: unceremoniously but with relish, each new experience, each new entry one step further to mastering cinema. (The best part being that that’ll never happen—a true masochist’s endeavor.)

The past couple weeks have been busy with what I’ll call event viewing. On April 16 and 17, Chicago was one of four cities in the U.S. to host the Art of the Benshi. The word benshi comes from katsudō benshi, or “movie talker,” which is a succinct summation of the tradition. At first, benshi would only summarize the silent film beforehand, as many of them would have been foreign imports and thus may have needed some explaining; however, as film became more narratively sophisticated, benshi began implementing setsumei, which took place during the film and provided a more storylike oration versus just an explanatory introduction. To quote one source on the subject, “Japanese ‘silent movies’ were never silent.”

My favorite of the films I was privileged to see at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with three benshi in attendance, was the surviving fragment of Yasujirō Ozu’s 1929 short A Straightforward Boy. On the first night, there was only one benshi per film; the gentleman who accompanied the Ozu fragment, Hideyuki Yamashiro, captured the Japanese master’s winsome sense of humor and economical plotting. Kumiko Ōmori, the lone woman in the trio, won over the crowd with her jokes and thoughtful accompaniment to Kenji Mizoguchi’s feature-length film The Water Magician (1933). Ōmori quipped that she was getting the same fee as the other two benshi despite accompanying the longest film; she also joked about trying Chicago pizza. (Our culinary reputation precedes us.)

Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa was also in Chicago recently to attend several screenings of his films. I went to the double feature of Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Sicilia! (1999) on 35-millimeter, and Costa’s Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001), a quasi-documentary about the editing of Straub-Huillet’s film. “Quasi” inasmuch as there are manipulations in Costa’s film that negate it as pure documentary, a mode that he doesn’t much care for anyway. (This was the biggest revelation of the post-screening discussion; ironically his visit to Block Cinema, where I saw the films, was sponsored by Northwestern’s MFA in Documentary Media program.) Costa is verbose in a way that I could listen to for hours. It’s refreshing to hear a filmmaker talk about filmmaking as an art rather than as a way to simply convey a message or tell a story.

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