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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > Rock Music > Gay > Benjamin Smoke

Benjamin Smoke


Picture: C     Sound: C     Extras: C-     Film: C+



Films with 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.


The stereo 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.


Running at 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 life lived.


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 with.


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


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