Corrections or additions?
This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the September 27,
2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
New Jersey Film Fest
Somewhere near the middle of the documentary,
Smoke," Robert Dickerson, alias Benjamin, offers his musical
in a nutshell:
"I still don’t really know what they mean by chord or notes or
why everyone in the band would have to be playing in the same key.
If you all had the same key that’d mean you had the same lock. Which
we know is not true. If you can’t find the key, let’s fucking break
in. Be over with it. I’ll tell everybody I did it."
Benjamin was a party-hard, beat hipster wannabe, openly queer drag
queen cultish punk-country-blues performer from Atlanta who was the
lead singer of a band called Smoke. He died of AIDS-related illnesses
in 1999. In this sometimes funny but ultimately heartbreaking
by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen, we watch his drugged and
presence stagger through closeup after closeup of rambling punk
biographical stories, broken up by occasional MTV-type performance
footage (complete with veils of smoke), culminating in a sudden screen
spurting appearance by punk-poetess Patti Smith, reading the lyrics
to a song she wrote for Benjamin.
Cohen and Sillen introduce the first of three screenings of
Smoke" at the New Jersey Film Festival on Friday, September 29,
with additional screenings Saturday and Sunday, September 30 and
What we learn about Benjamin, the film’s central character, is in
some ways negligible. Often stoned out of his gourd, he works hard
to impress throughout the film, looking like an anorexic Woody
taking long drags off filterless cigarettes, growling like a Southern
hick version of Holden Caufield in his too-cool-to-be-true pose. His
stories are for the most part self-aggrandizing hipster trash,
amusingly poetic in a kind of neo-pseudo-beat tradition, but not
revealing. A smokescreen. And if this were all the film had to
offer we might as well watch a Gap commercial.
But Cohen and Sillen’s camera doesn’t stop there, and
the beauty of the film, much like Salinger’s "Catcher in the
lies between the lines, enabling us to learn a considerable amount
about Robert Dickerson, a shy gay misfit who took refuge in the
pose and who never found his safe place in life. The camera burrows
past the smoke to get to the scared and scarred human behind the
Often visually stunning, mixing black and white sections with deep
impressionistic color, Cohen and Sillen settle their camera on
personal and revealing gems such as a note from Dickerson’s loving
mother, taped to the refrigerator, offering him her prayers, or
gently compassionate chat on a street corner with a wheely-popping
overweight redneck 10-year-old boy who, seeing the camera, thinks
he’s the star, and offers us a finger for our troubles.
Cohen first met Dickerson in 1989 after seeing his band, the Opal
Foxx Quartet, perform at a bar in Athens, Georgia. "We went to
a tiny venue called The Downstairs, and in came a band that seemed
bigger than the audience, playing such things as violin, cello, organ,
electric guitars, and in the case of 300-pound `redneck poet’ Deacon
Lunchbox, a cap pistol, used for percussion."
Fronting this band was Benjamin, decked out in a sun dress and
a beat-up purse, wailing out what Cohen calls "an amazing set
of songs: ballads of Southern wear and tear, punk rock rave-ups,
blues, and everything in between."
After a series of deaths of some of the Opal Foxx musicians, the band
Smoke was born, and this was when Sillen and Cohen began to film
"We wanted to see how the new band would function, but mostly
we wanted to document Benjamin. He was a natural and increasingly
rare kind of storyteller, a bit of a deep South, dirt-poor Oscar
At this point, Cohen claims, making a documentary was the furthest
thing from their minds. "We just wanted to capture something
says Cohen. "Even before we knew that Benjamin was sick, we knew
that it might not last. There never was a producer or crew or any
trained assistants. We shot on spare `short ends’ of film that were
left over from other jobs, or video, or Super 8. We recorded sound
on a DAT walkman, or just on audio cassettes, and when we had no sound
equipment or spare hands, we shot silent."
For a film centered on a musician, most of the music in "Benjamin
Smoke" is pushed to the background. We hear Benjamin’s music
the rants of hell-fire street preachers, or bus engines revving up
the street. Benjamin’s singing voice is a kind of low rumbling growl,
like gas in the intestines, self-consciously Tom Waits-like, with
words that are often hard to make out. The band, purported to be fine
musicians at several points in the film, are a clutter of noises
to an irregular beat. Often, the only reason they seem to be playing
the same song is because they all happen to be playing at the same
time and happen to be on the stage together.
Much of the filming takes place in a rundown section of Atlanta called
Cabbagetown, where Benjamin lived for a time. He describes it as a
place "filled with the go-carts, and where the kids go to jail
really young." A place dominated by poverty, street hustlers,
and drugs, and where it always looks like it’s about to rain. In a
series of snapshot-like montages reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s
the filmmakers graphically illustrate the town’s downtrodden
One of the most endearing elements of the film is Benjamin’s
idolization of singer Patti Smith. He calls his first hearing of her
mid-’70s album "Horses" as one of the defining moments of
his life, and gushes like a school-girl as he describes the nearly
metaphysical forces that brought her to one of his shows, something
he knew was destined to happen someday. And of course, the highlight
of his life was opening for Patti Smith’s band at a show in Atlanta
in 1997, a snatch of which is in the film.
Patti Smith of course, is a neo-beat herself. Although the beats were
great breakers of barriers and enthusiastic celebrators of life, it
is interesting to note those who lived on into old age as opposed
to those who died young. While William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg
found enough meaning in life to endure the passing years, Neal Cassady
and Jack Kerouac began dusting the inside of their coffins at an early
The real star of "Benjamin Smoke" is the image
of cool rebel hipster, an image that has killed more people than it
has saved. It is difficult to watch "Benjamin Smoke" without
wondering why some so-called cool sensitive artist-hipsters survive
and some don’t, and feeling downright bad for those who don’t. It
seems a dreadful waste that some intelligent young people, like Robert
Dickerson, wrap themselves in the hipster flag, bringing themselves
notoriety, emotional nourishment, and a certain amount of self-worth,
yet are still unable to accomplish the basic things it takes to
their own survival.
Although the film touches on such social concerns as AIDS, poverty,
and addiction, these are not raised as significant points of order.
They are offered as mere facts of the Benjamin’s life, a part of his
Much of the appeal of the hipster has always been a kind of flaunting
of death. Laughing in the face of it. This appeal is so strong that
it is used to sell movies, and cigarettes, and blue jeans. But the
image itself is, of course, an illusion. To live fast and die young,
leaving a beautiful corpse has long been a kind of hipster mantra,
but it is always surprising how many people actually take it
Patti Smith herself, now in her 50s, advises in the preface of a
issued collection of her poetry: "In art and dream may you proceed
with abandon. In life may you proceed with balance and stealth."
This is where the meaning of "Benjamin Smoke" really come
into play. A question that is not answered, but merely presented.
Behind the hipster poet-musician image, what pain, isolation, regret
or whatever it was, drove this lovable, talented, child-like young
man to such an early death?
"Benjamin Smoke" is a fascinating and deeply moving film,
painful to watch, but with a strong message packed between the lines.
Bring your hankies and pray for your children.
— Jack Florek
through Sunday in Scott Hall, Room 123, College Avenue Campus;
screenings are in Loree Hall, Room 024, Douglass College Campus. $5;
732-932-8482. Benjamin Smoke, with visiting directors Jem Cohen
and Peter Sillen, Friday, September 29; also screens Saturday
& Sunday, September 30 & October 1.
Corrections or additions?
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