Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Benjamin Smoke's documentary study of a cult musician brings the viewer uncomfortably close to real pain

It sounds like a spiritual death sentence for moviegoers: Come watch a dying Georgia singer and junkie drag queen tell all to the camera while he withers away, sick with AIDS but ready to share his stories. Between ramblings, watch some impressionistic live footage of his hillbilly-beatnik trance-country band, Smoke, and the Atlanta slum he calls home, Cabbagetown. If this were fiction, the names would be almost too poetically gritty.

That said, directors Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen know they've found a compelling talker in Benjamin (born Robert Dickerson), the subject and namesake of their amusingly zoned-out rock documentary Benjamin Smoke. With his raspy Jonesboro drawl and unhurried way with a punch line, Benjamin seems as much a victim of narrative wanderlust as the filmmakers do, a storyteller whose head seems as ravaged as the waif body he inhabits and the Tom Waits voice he sings with. But his wit remains shiny. "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," he says at one point, taking the shirt off his bony torso to model a blue taffeta cocktail dress. "You think sapphire is your color," he taunts, "but it ain't."

Better to fade away than burn out: Benjamin in Benjamin Smoke
Better to fade away than burn out: Benjamin in Benjamin Smoke

It's not hard to imagine why this unique figure drew such a fervid cult crowd before he died of liver failure last year, a day after his 39th birthday. And it's not hard to imagine why, despite the fan support of such icons as Michael Stipe and Patti Smith, you've never heard of the guy. As he admits on camera, Benjamin was a speed freak and a shut-in for years. His only major brush with the punk-rock big top was sweeping mountains of glass at CBGB's in the late Seventies. He began as a country boy who somehow discovered Patti Smith's Horses and was inspired to make theatrical folk-blues-soul performance art just as candid about his sexuality, his weird obsessions (Luke Perry's feet emerge as one amusing fetish), and his defiance of local bigotry. "I always thought that when I found out I was HIV-positive I'd probably be mouth of the South about it," Benjamin explains, ashamed of his only closet. "Because I always had kind of been mouthy about things that bother people. Because [those things] were important and I wasn't." (Like a lot of the film, the poignant last word there--pronounced wutt'n--gets lost in his mumble.)

The artist describes his music as "beautiful yet difficult" in Smoke--"I don't know where beautiful ends and difficult begins," he adds--and he might as well be critiquing the film constructed around him. Lovingly sculpted from scraps of various Super 8 and 16mm reels shot over a span of ten years, Smoke is an almost abstract biography. Instead of filling us in on certain details (how did Benjamin get to New York, and why did he come back?), the directors train their eyes on neighborhood go-carts, the streetscapes around them, and Benjamin's wondrous verbal riffing as he looks on. (At one point, the singer philosophizes that an orgasm is "like chicken, only a little gamier.")

Sure, there's something intriguing about a doc with no narrative voiceovers and no audible interview questions--a film that lets what context it has ooze in gradually from the edges. Cohen and Sillen have clearly mastered the art of getting musicians to treat the camera as nothing weirder than a hat or sunglasses on the director's head. Sillen kicked off his doc about Vic Chesnutt, Speed Racer, with the subject talking about his wheelchair from a bathtub; Cohen's Instrument (airing this month on the Sundance Channel) found the director interviewing Fugazi's Brendan Canty in the shower. One wonders if these filmmakers similarly befriended Benjamin outside of filming.

"There was no 'outside of filming,'" Cohen told me in a recent phone interview. "Very early on, he decided to trust us. And when we tried to ask formal questions, it didn't work. His answers wouldn't be as interesting as something that came off the top of his head when he saw a bird outside the window ten minutes later." Certainly, Smoke captures the hallucinatory feel of a late-night conversation around the medical bong. But the resulting directorial tone--which might be described as an absence of same--leaves the film easy prey for its strongest outside voice, Patti Smith. After seeing Benjamin perform in New York, she penned "Death Singing," which wound up on her 1997 album Peace and Noir. The song almost too vividly captures the man we see before us, "With a throat smooth as a lamb/Yet dry as a branch not snapping/He throws back his head/Yet he does not sing a thing mournful."

Smith herself reads the lyric at film's end, which Cohen and Sillen clearly hope to represent the closing of a circle. Yet all I could think was how queasily cheap it was to let this thick-throated, spiky-mop-haired singer stand in for death simply because he was beginning to look like a skeleton.

And then I wondered whether this wasn't part of Benjamin's appeal. Pain, he once joked, was not as painful for him as it was for other people. That's the allure and the problem with Benjamin Smoke, where the songwriter's spirit, though infectious, is visibly fading fast--a feeling that is also infectious. It's difficult to criticize a film for not being more mournful, but mourning at least offers comfort, where Benjamin Smoke gives us truth.

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