November 16, 2000

Cornell Cinema

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What is a Benjamin Smoke? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a documentary that plays like a song. It’s the white elephant of music. It’s a Georgian music group that has inspired mainstream music moguls Patti Smith and Michael Stipe. It’s a man. It’s a woman. It’s a gay speed freak with HIV. It’s Robert Dickerson, the queen, the myth, the legend.

Benjamin Smoke is a music film that’s less about Smoke’s life than his source, his inspiration, his mind, and his genius. It’s a documentation of a phenomenon that almost slipped through the world’s fingers until Jem Cohen froze it in celluloid.

The cast of characters is not limited to Benjamin Smoke himself, but also includes the poor Atlanta, Georgia neighborhood known as “Cabbagetown” made up of Appalachian factory workers that socialized this great poet, philosopher, and musician.

The film begins in 1989 when director Jem Cohen was working on a music video for R.E.M. He spotted posters for a band called the Opal Foxx Quartet, which eventually became Benjamin Smoke. Several people, including Stipe, urged Cohen to catch what they promised would be a singularly original performance. What Cohen witnessed was a musical miracle like no other. The director describes the experience saying, “The band was led by Benjamin, in the guise of ‘Miss Opal Foxx’, a scrawny powerhouse in a sun dress, carrying a battered purse and belting out an amazing set of songs: ballads of Southern wear and tear, punk rock rave-ups, strange blues, and everything in between.”

Tragically, the film ends along with Benjamin, who died from AIDS on January 29, 1999. This gives the film incredible power in that the director, and therefore the audience members, feel like they are witnessing something fleetingly outstanding. Cohen writes, “We just wanted to capture something that we knew was remarkable. And even before we knew that Benjamin was sick, we knew that it might not last.”

It is as if Cohen has captured something in time that almost went unnoticed and undocumented. As if Haley’s comet could have sped by Earth and everyone might have missed it. Admirably, this brief span of moments that Cohen steals for the enjoyment of all is amazingly pure and honestly preserved.

There is something about this queer and obtuse shadow of a man in a blue satin prom dress that rivals the marvel and improbability of something like Haley’s comet. A large portion of the film is just quiet listening and non-invasive observation of Smoke by the camera. He sits without reservation speaking in lyrics, always communicating poetically. At times, one has to decode his thoughts like one would a poem, but once you understand what he is saying it’s mind boggling and opening.

The lyrics that trickle melodramatically from Smoke’s mouth are deeply disturbing, yet surprisingly optimistic. He is shockingly honest. It is like the film puts the viewer in direct contact with Smoke’s subconscious. The free flow of ideas and words seem ridiculous and disjointed because of this, but in the end it seems to all make perfect sense and much more. His vocabulary and use of words is not normal. He uses our own language to speak to us in a way we’ve never heard before. It’s making the ordinary extraordinary that is part of Smoke’s brilliance.

Benjamin Smoke is a “music video” in the truest sense. Every aspect of the film mimics elements of music. The film does not use dialogue, but lyrics. The camera does not simply observe, it gives the film a tempo and rhythm like notes in a song. The film does not document a person or a band, it documents art. It’s the art of Smoke’s life and music, but also art as a life form and pulse. Cohen states, “Perhaps most surprising to us, the filmmakers, is its broader function as a narrative reflection on art and chance.”

So what is a Benjamin Smoke? It’s a film you should take time out of your busy, end of the semester, I-want-to-drop-out schedule to see.

Archived article by Laura Thomas