Picture: C Sound: C Extras: C- Film: C+
unique titles used to extend to dramatic films, but in the 1980s, when
Hollywood product became too safe, such distinctions became the domain of
documentaries. When confronted with a
film entitled Benjamin Smoke (2000),
there is no idea of what to expect.
What it turns out to be about is a musician in Georgia’s underground
music scene once named Robert Dickerson.
Because of the circumstances of this name, he changed it to Benjamin,
with which he lived out the rest of his life with.
To add to this, he is a
Drag Queen, Gay (some Drag Queens are not), and a drug addict. Where society wants to throw away anyone
these days who does not conform to some hypocritical and nonexistent standard
of “the way we should be”, this film boldly celebrates differences,
unconditionally caring for all the cameras capture. This is not a sanitized version of life that lies its head off,
but an honest portrait of a man who had something to say, with a very musically
articulate voice. The sadness,
loneliness, and isolation are what we all experience on some level, no matter
how often we deny it. This was an
artist who was deep in such a realization. Plexifilm’s new DVD expands on the theatrical release by adding
extras that fortunately expands on what is an average film.
This film was
shot in various formats, by the directors, with the footage usually in
monochrome. This is usually in 16mm,
but also has Super 8mm and video footage.
Though Super 8 has an aspect ratio of 1.66 X 1, the whole film is full
screen. The results are varied, as
usual for a documentary, but the use of the two film formats is not seen as
much as it used to be. The results are
still superior to high definition video anytime, using film’s better fidelity
to intimate its subject more clearly visually and literally. The grain and video pixels are noticed, but
are marred additionally by any digital noise transfer problems. There is both color and monochrome footage
throughout. DuArt Film Labs deserves
credit for pulling this together more seamlessly that many labs might have,
also being responsible for the titles.
sound was recorded on both analog audio cassette tapes, the dying format
originally known as 4-track tape, plus a DAT Sony Walkman was also used with
its 16 bit CD-type sound. The result is
sometimes very thin, but the Dolby Digital 2.0 has been transferred the best it
could be, so limits in the fidelity are more from location sound than
encoding. The combination creates a
unique atmosphere that has character.
47:10, the bonus footage of the film includes a half-hour of outtakes of
interviews with Benjamin. The remainder
offers music by Smoke and tribute performances by Vic Chesnutt (in studio) and
Cat Power (live on stage). This is a
good continuation of the main program that adds to the detailed portrait of a
The music is
written by Benjamin, performed by Smoke (Benjamin on Lead Vocals, Tim Champion
on percussion, Brian Halloran on Cello, Coleman Lewis on Guitar and Bill Taft
on Trumpet and Banjo) with guest stars Chan Marshall, Vic Chesnutt, and Patti
Smith. Cabbagetown Still Photographs by
Michael Ackerman, Executive Produced by Noah Cohen, Edited by Nancy Roach,
Cinematography, Additional Editing, Location Sound, and Co-Directing by Jem
Cohen and Peter Sillen.
Thanks to the extras, the
film becomes more fleshed out. The
press notes claim that the editing and slow-motion cinematography were trying
to duplicate that used by Oliver Stone on his quickly dated, but interesting Natural Born Killers (1994). The problem with using a form that was a
dark send-up of a society doomed by a sick media, along with the ultra-violence
that followed, is not one that wants to have a narrative that adds up to
reporting about any one thing. That
lack of focus sabotages Benjamin Smoke
too often, in a character portrait that is not that radical or violent to being
Technically, Stone’s romp
is further dated by the novelty of having all of its 35mm footage digitized to
be TV-like, and make further manipulation of the film easy. That is especially the case in its many
hallucinatory moments. This documentary
has no such moments, nor does it look much like TV. That extra material shows the actual film should have been
longer, though the situation the directors want to communicate still comes
through, except with the handicap of losing much of its interesting information
that would have made the picture more involving.
It is nice that the filmmakers
took risks, but they do not always pay off.
Fortunately for those who see it in DVD, Benjamin Smoke can be enjoyed and taken in even better in this
expanded released. That ultimately
makes the film worth a look.
- Nicholas Sheffo