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February 4, 2005

Benjamin Smoke

Intrigued by a discussion of Lost Book Found (still haven't been able to track down the film here in Atlanta), I rented Jem Cohen's documentary, Benjamin Smoke. The documentary focuses on Benjamin, an openly gay, HIV-positive, speed freak rock performer from Atlanta who died in his 30s. Benjamin's music channels the gravelly vocals of Tom Waits but mixes in the influences of punk (Patti Smith is a major influence), jazz, and even country. Given Benjamin's rock-and-roll lifestyle, it would have been easy to turn his story into a VH1-style Behind the Music morality play (as this unsigned review points out), but Cohen handles this story much more effectively, allowing Benjamin to speak for himself, and Benjamin is a natural in front of the camera, a great storyteller, speaking to us as if he is conversing over coffee with an old friend. Cohen provides little narration, and doesn't pretend to offer a total picture of Benjamin. While the film is certainly biographical, it resists offering anything that would resemble the final word on this fascinating performer.

But what I found more interesting about the film is it's treatment of Benjamin's place within an Atlanta culture that itself seems to be on the verge of being lost. Benjamin lived much of his adult life in the eccentric community of Cabbagetown, where most of the town's residents worked for a cotton mill until it closed in 1970, and the Cabbagetown community became populated by local legends such as Benjamin and Kelly Hogan, lead singer of the Jody Grind. This local culture is now fading away as the neighborhood is gradually being transformed by gentrification. The film captures much of this local culture incidentally, with archival footage of local performer, Deacon Lunchbox, as well as footage taken inside Atlanta's notorious alterna-hip strip club, the Clermont Lounge. But Cohen also has a wonderful eye for everyday objects, for allowing the camera to linger a few extra seconds on some beads hanging in a window or a piece of furniture or a run-down store front or some kids playing in their homemade go-carts. Benjamin leads us through a Cabbagetown tunnel heavily decorated in graffiti (unfortunately the film can't do this particular space justice). These images all present a weird Atlanta that I found absolutely fascinating and suggest that the familiar images of the city--the Peachtree Plaza, the Bell South building--are part of another city altogether, with the Atlanta skyline appears as a mere distant backdrop.

The film itself is visually rich, as A.O. Scott points out, combining photographs, archival footage, and black and white and color film. The DVD includes several nice extras, including more footage of Benjamin's band, Smoke, performing in the Clermont Lounge and other local venues, and Jem Cohen and co-director Peter Sillen use these images to preserve a weird Atlanta that could have easily been lost.

By the way, G Zombie also mentioned the film a few weeks ago when he was recommending music by two of Benjamin's bands, Smoke and the Opal Foxx Quartet (and if you haven't heard their music, you absolutely should).

Posted by chuck at February 4, 2005 3:58 PM

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I saw "Lost Book Found" at Duke -- Jem Cohen came down and screened it for us. I'm also happy to say that I saw what I believe was the U.S. premier of Cohen's documentary on the band Fugazi, "Instrument." (Have you seen that?)

He also showed us some mini-mentaries, including a really interesting one on the singer Elliot Smith.

Anyway, both Lost Book Found and Instrument are well worth seeing.

Posted by: Amardeep at February 4, 2005 11:15 PM

I think one of my local video stores has the Fugazi doc, which I'll try to see in the next few days.

The Elliot Smith documentary sounds interesting, too...

Posted by: Chuck [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 5, 2005 12:23 AM

I was there, and part of it all, and I can tell you there was no other coming-of-age that I would have wanted over it.....

Posted by: J Waits at September 5, 2006 3:57 PM

It sounds like it was an amazing scene. Wish I'd known more about it when I was growing up in the 'burbs.

Posted by: Chuck at September 5, 2006 4:20 PM

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