Tuesday, August 1, 2017 at 7:30pm
Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen's Benjamin Smoke

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Benjamin Smoke, Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen, 2000, 16mm, 72 mins

Benjamin Smoke was never intended to be a traditional documentary. It is a portrait of a musician, a music film, but one that avoids the promotional cliches employed in today’s superstar obsessed climate. He was a genuine underground figure, an outsider whose difficult life was channeled and transformed by the music that he made, and whose music transformed others. It is a film about the struggle with AIDS and the effects of addiction, but it is also something of a comedy. It depicts a neighborhood in transition, reflecting the colliding forces that are creating America’s "New South." Perhaps most surprising to us, the filmmakers, is its broader function as a narrative reflection on art and chance. Benjamin Smoke is the story of a boy growing up in the rural South who sensed his own difference, a "queerness" that isn’t just about gender. It tells how he heard the call of distant heroes whose championing of renegade paths gave him a direction to follow, and how his own journey then came to affect some of these once-distant heroes.

I met Benjamin in 1989 when I was in Athens, Georgia, doing some film work for the band R.E.M. I saw posters for an Atlanta group called the Opal Foxx Quartet that was coming to town, and a number of people, including R.E.M.’s singer, Michael Stipe, told me that this was a show I must not miss. I recall being surprised that so many of the rock and roll people I knew were interested in classical music, or was it jazz? It turned out to be neither, and they were no quartet. We went to a tiny venue called the Downstairs, and in came a band that seemed bigger than the audience, playing such things as violin, cello, organ, electric guitars, and in the case of the 300 pound "redneck poet" Deacon Lunchbox, a cap pistol, used for percussion. The band was led by Benjamin, in the guise of "Miss Opal Foxx," a scrawny little powerhouse in a sundress, 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. I remember a catchy song called "Frail Body" whose chorus was:

Gotta get it up, gotta get it up and show you I’m a man . . . Gotta get it up on the outside, cuz the inside’s caving in.

As Benjamin put it: "For a faggot, do I have a rockin’ band or what?"

Some time later, Stipe brought the band into a studio to produce their demo tape, and I hung around and got to know Benjamin. Super 8 film from that period would end up in the documentary ten years later.

After a series of tragic deaths of some of the musicians in Opal Foxx, the band Smoke was born, and I began to film with Pete Sillen, who had made a short about another underground musician from Georgia, Vic Chesnutt. We wanted to see how the new band would function, but mostly we wanted to document Benjamin. He was a natural and increasingly rare kind of storyteller, a bit of a deep South, dirt-poor Oscar Wilde. Time with him was always fascinating. Still, we didn’t know that we were "making a documentary." 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.

There never was a producer or crew or any trained assistants. We shot on spare "short ends" of film that were left over from other jobs, or video, or Super 8. We recorded sound on a DAT Walkman, or just on audio cassettes, and when we had no sound equipment or spare hands, we shot silent.

Benjamin lived in an extraordinary neighborhood called Cabbagetown. Shooting there was never easy, and not just because it wasn’t a safe place. From the minute we stepped out of the car, there was too much to capture, too much slipping away, too much out of control. Benjamin was happy to have us come, but he might disappear for days on end, and sometimes he was in bad shape. Still, once he knew that we weren’t going to judge him, he was always open, and was never troubled by the camera. When we asked to shoot some old pictures from his life, Benjamin went to an old filing cabinet and searched for a while, finally coming up with what looked like a brick.

It turned out to be a solid block of photographs that had been damaged by water and stuck together in one piece, seemingly ruined. We felt terrible, but Benjamin was unfazed and began to peel them apart, fascinated by the psychedelic patterns caused by the destroyed emulsion. We used what we could salvage in the film, and it ended up making perfect sense that way. In fact, that is how much of the project was built, using fragments, odds and ends, making do with what we had.

The fact that Patti Smith ended up in the film was also a matter of chance and echoed circumstance. She was probably Benjamin’s greatest influence; she was the magnet that drew him to New York for a short time in the late 1970’s, where he got work sweeping up in CBGB’s, the infamous punk club. He met her briefly, but returned to Georgia, to life as a speed-freak, drag queen, and musician, never much known outside of the Atlanta underground. None of us could have guessed that she would one day see his band, even in their last days, and that this would lead to an inspiration in her own work that we would document in the film—a sad, beautiful, perfect circle."

- Jem Cohen, February, 2000

Followed by a conversation with Cohen and Sillen.

Tickets - $8, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.

Above image courtesy Michael Ackerman.