Benjamin Smoke

on July 21, 2000 by Tim Cogshell
"Benjamin Smoke" is ostensibly a documentary, but in reality it is a portrait of a transitory being--a unique person whose peculiar life was captured almost by happenstance. The film was shot on short-ends of Super 8 and 16mm film by co-directors Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen (both New York-based experimental and documentary filmmakers) after they were introduced by singer Michael Stipe of R.E.M. to the music of Robert Dickerson, aka Benjamin, an enigmatic speed freak, drag queen and lead singer of several underground poetic punk/jazz/quartet bands. Benjamin, as he prefers to be known, is a reflection of an era, the zeitgeist born of the punk movement of the late '70s in dingy dives likes CBGB's, where Benjamin worked as a sweeper during its heyday. A dirt-poor, deep-South Oscar Wilde who lived in a squalid area called Cabbagetown, Benjamin wrote songs and told stories about all he'd seen and done in his fringe existence. He is part poet, part performer, part philosopher and one hundred percent original. His story is tragic in some ways, punctuated by illness, abuse and drug use, but the filmmakers, using bits and pieces of footage captured during interviews and performances over several encounters with Benjamin and his associates, finds something undeniably magnificent about this scrawny little chain-smoking eccentric, whose life and music influenced the likes of Michael Stipe, Patti Smith (who appears in the film) and countless others who grew out of the underground movement where he once reigned. Benjamin died in 1999 of complications from AIDS, leaving a legacy of music and ideas fortunately captured in this unusual, captivating little film. Starring Robert "Benjamin" Dickerson, Tim Campion, Brian Halloran, Coleman Lewis and Bill Taft. Directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen. Produced by Jo Jamison and Neil Fried. A Cowboy release. Documentary. Unrated. Running time: 80 min.
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