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,

"Benjamin

Smoke," Robert Dickerson, alias Benjamin, offers his musical

philosophy

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

documentary

by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen, we watch his drugged and

disease-wracked

presence stagger through closeup after closeup of rambling punk

drawled

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

"Benjamin

Smoke" at the New Jersey Film Festival on Friday, September 29,

with additional screenings Saturday and Sunday, September 30 and

October

1.

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

Guthrie,

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,

sometimes

amusingly poetic in a kind of neo-pseudo-beat tradition, but not

particularly

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

Rye,"

lies between the lines, enabling us to learn a considerable amount

about Robert Dickerson, a shy gay misfit who took refuge in the

hipster/artist

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

sunglasses.

Often visually stunning, mixing black and white sections with deep

impressionistic color, Cohen and Sillen settle their camera on

surprisingly

personal and revealing gems such as a note from Dickerson’s loving

mother, taped to the refrigerator, offering him her prayers, or

Dickerson’s

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

clutching

a beat-up purse, wailing out what Cohen calls "an amazing set

of songs: ballads of Southern wear and tear, punk rock rave-ups,

strange

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

Benjamin.

"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

Wilde."

At this point, Cohen claims, making a documentary was the furthest

thing from their minds. "We just wanted to capture something

remarkable,"

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

behind

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

strung

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

painting,

the filmmakers graphically illustrate the town’s downtrodden

character.

One of the most endearing elements of the film is Benjamin’s

bald-faced

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

age.

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

maintain

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

persona.

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

seriously.

Patti Smith herself, now in her 50s, advises in the preface of a

recently

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

New Jersey Film Festival screenings are 7 p.m. Fridays

through Sunday in Scott Hall, Room 123, College Avenue Campus;

Thursday

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.


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