Benjamin Smoke DVD review

Film / Video Reviews
Benjamin Smoke DVD review
Jan 21, 2003, 20:58

BENJAMIN SMOKE directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen; Plexifilm, 2003

Smoke was an amazing, incredibly original band from Atlanta that only a few people ever got to hear. This dreamy verité is a haunting portrait of the group's singer and lyricist, Benjamin (no last name), an infinitely more amazing and original human being who died in 1999. A veteran of the under-documented Opal Foxx Quartet, as well as several other Atlanta punk bands, Benjamin was the consummate convention-defier, a true-born Alfred Jarry of the South. A dirt-poor artist, unapologetic drug addict and occasional drag queen, he accepted himself and his surroundings just as they were and without complaint, wishing only that the world would do the same in return. But if it didn't… oh well.

Most of the film is shot in Cabbagetown, the dilapidated, bohemian neighborhood where Benjamin lived, loved, and worked, and which is so obviously his own parallel character—like a dour take on Woody Allen's Manhattan. (Stunning, shadowy black and white stills by Michael Ackerman pepper the movie, as well as the enclosed booklet.) Mostly inhabited by generations of white trash descended from its original population of cotton mill workers, the area later became an affordable haven for punks and artists, before yuppification inevitably came to bear and all the soul got bought right out. When Cabbagetown died, Benjamin, its symbolic mayor, who had lived with HIV for several years, couldn't be far behind.

But there's where he got us: largely out of defiant desire, Benjamin's health had turned around and he had beaten AIDS—as if to show the world that he was even less like anyone else. What actually killed him were the related but separate ailments of Hepatitis C and liver failure. An absurdist to the end, he wouldn't be pinned down.

One gets the feeling that, much as he would never have admitted it, Benjamin so deeply wanted to leave an impression on the world, through both his life and art. If only to show us that there's absolutely nothing wrong with being different from everyone else; that it is, in fact, something to be proud of.

Wherever he is now, Benjamin can finally rest easy. By leaving behind his excellent music and this film, he's done his job—well. 

-Peter Aaron

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