Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Benjamin Smoke

Posted By on Wed, Mar 21, 2001 at 12:00 AM

A flamboyant Benjamin in better days.
  • A flamboyant Benjamin in better days.

There’s a rare harmony between subject and style in the documentary Benjamin Smoke which distinguishes it from other portraits of musicians and cult figures. Co-directors Jem Cohen (Instrument) and Peter Sillen (Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt) use a cut-and-paste approach to build an emotional portrait of Benjamin, singer in the band Smoke and self-confessed “mouth of the South.”

The beautifully discordant sounds made by Smoke not only underscore this film, but seem to dictate its very structure. An organic pastiche of country, blues, jazz and punk with a hint of cabaret decadence, Smoke’s music is as much driven by cello and trumpet as drums and guitars. This heady Southern brew is topped off by Benjamin, who sounds at times like Nick Cave but seems like no one but himself.

With a raspy-voiced frankness emanating from a weakened and emaciated body, Benjamin holds court with the camera, giving interviews which initially seem rambling (he once stops to ponder his possible slide into dementia) but are concise summations of his life’s philosophy. “Except for a year and a half,” Benjamin liked himself for the 39 years he lived. This he rightly acknowledges as a gift, especially considering his years as a pill-popping drag queen bent on getting noticed and shaking up a complacent world. He’d be a natural for “Behind the Music”-type exploitation, but Cohen and Sillen instead wrap Benjamin in the gauze of mythology, seeing him as a marvel of self-creation and a natural artist.

Benjamin Smoke is less a biography than an enticing snapshot and, just as they romantically portray Atlanta’s down-and-out Cabbagetown neighborhood as a crucible of creativity, the filmmakers intentionally eschew background information for oblique impressions of fleeting moments. This makes for a film which is at once enticing and frustrating, like being introduced to a fascinating figure at a party, but never having the opportunity to get to know him better.

Cohen and Sillen assert that we’re lucky to know him at all. Ephemeral as smoke, Benjamin lingers like a haunting refrain.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

E-mail Serena Donadoni at letters@metrotimes.com.

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