`Smoke' gets in your senses, gracefully

Review: Film on life of Robert Dickerson - musician, transvestite and speed freak - is a moving portrait of the artist.

April 24, 2001|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Imagine Flannery O'Connor extruded through the voice of Tom Waits and the persona of the hero of a Bruce LaBruce film, and you get the beginning of a glimmer of an idea of Benjamin, an Atlanta-based singer and songwriter whose death in 1999 brought an electrifying, if obscure, career to a tragically premature end.

All of the elusive qualities that made Benjamin such a captivating presence are gracefully captured in "Benjamin Smoke," Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen's moving portrait of an artist who led a triumphantly marginal existence even as he cultivated a tenacious cult following. The film opens tonight for a two-day run at the Charles; Cohen will be on hand at tonight's 7:40 screening.

The "Benjamin" in the title refers to one Robert Dickerson, who rechristened himself Benjamin when he left home as a teen-ager (even at an early age, he says, he felt "queer" and reveled in dressing up in his mother's clothes). After hearing Patti Smith's "Horses" album in 1978, he moved to New York and swept floors at famed nightclub CBGB's; not long after that he moved back to Georgia and began to improvise his life as a musician, transvestite and speed freak.

He joined a number of minor bands, but most fans know him best as Miss Opal Foxx, the centerpiece of the legendary Atlanta redneck-punk-cabaret ensemble the Opal Foxx Quartet.

The "Smoke" in the movie's title refers to Benjamin's next and last band, Smoke, a remarkable ensemble made up of former Opal Foxx members whose music has been called "folk noir" but was steadfastly indescribable. Always at its center was Benjamin, a presence at once winsome and imposing, with a gritty voice he wielded with incantatory power. ("Smoke" also refers, not incidentally, to Benjamin's favorite pastime. "Better to smoke here than in the hereafter" was a favorite epigram.)

Benjamin wasn't always the easiest artist to comprehend, and he presents a daunting subject for a documentary. But no one is better qualified than Cohen and Sillen to represent him. Cohen is best known for the dreamy films he has made for R.E.M., as well as "Instrument," an inspiring documentary about the band Fugazi; Sillen directed the unforgettable "Speed Racer," his 1994 portrait of Athens, Ga., songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Fans of Chesnutt will see traces of his sardonic, Southern Gothic sensibility in Benjamin; appropriately enough, he shows up in "Benjamin Smoke" for a cameo, his picture pinned up on Benjamin's wall.

Like both "Instrument" and "Speed Racer," "Benjamin Smoke" is not a conventional documentary: The "who, what, where, when and how" questions aren't asked, much less answered. Instead, the filmmakers wisely let Benjamin's persona reveal itself slowly, until filmgoers find themselves just as transfixed as the people who were lucky enough to see him live.

An equally compelling subject of "Benjamin Smoke" is the rusted-out Atlanta neighborhood of Cabbagetown, where Benjamin adamantly eked out his existence. Photographs of the community by Michael Ackerman appear throughout "Benjamin Smoke," making the film a compelling portrait not just of an extraordinary artist but also of a disappearing time and place.

Acrid, alluring and potent, Benjamin and his world exert an irresistible pull, then disappear in an evanescent but still perceptible wisp.

`Benjamin Smoke'

Directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen

Running time 80 minutes

Unrated (language, some drug and sexual references)

Released by Cowboy Booking International

Sun score: ***

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