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The Art of Documentary

Benjamin Smoke (Jem Cohen & Peter Sillen; Plexifilm DVD released 1/03)

Documentaries can seem like the new fodder for television and film festivals. But while the category has come to encompass everything from the formulaic puffery that fills cable channels to the classics of Direct Cinema, it is more than wise to make the distinction that the majority of what is called “documentary” is not film. And by film, I don’t necessarily mean that it has to be shot in film, but rather that it has something to offer that is original, vibrant and, yes, sometimes even touching.
After its award-winning tour of world-wide festivals, Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s documentary Benjamin Smoke, recently released on an extras-packed DVD from Brooklyn’s own Plexifilm, certainly falls into the category of being a film. And it’s even shot on film—very beautifully composed and meticulously processed film. Cohen and Sillen make use of many textures and tones the medium can offer, sometimes alternating between black-and-white, color, sepia, grainy, pristine, and other celluloid manifestations. The use of stills, fortunately, is decidedly unlike the Burns brothers—instead Cohen and Sillen deploy crumbled, cracked, and stained photos that look as if they had just been pulled out of pockets. In addition, near the end of the film, the ghostly black-and-white stills of Michael Ackerman serve as an atmospheric coda.

But the warm, rich visual element of this documentary film only adds to compelling content. Essentially a portrait of Benjamin, singer of the Atlanta-based band Smoke, the film is shot over many years as he slowly battles with HIV and nonchalantly speaks in honest tones about drugs, mortality, and “nice African-American copper pigs.” He is a sinewy bundle of the gruff and the languid, with a sweetness that bows to Dionysian self-destruction. He is contorted yet casual, observant, and when the camera studies him singing you can’t help but fall for him and his unconsciously subversive vision. As it turns out, Patti Smith, a hero of his, recites a characteristically maudlin poem for him near the end of the film. Benjamin lingers with you like a sincere Mick Jagger-esque ghost, fragile yet somehow vivacious.

If that’s not enough, mate, then consider the music of Smoke. While Benjamin’s gravelly singing is sometimes compared to Tom Waits, it’s really only the best down-and-dirty parts of Waits’s music that make for relevant comparison. Combine that with the best of a melodious Nick Cave ballad, and throw in more banjo, cello, and Morphine-like horns, and you get one of the sounds that, on first hearing, you know is unique and organic, not generated by some slick producer.

It’s a documentary film with no narration, which is always good, and because it’s more of a portrait you don’t lose the story. Some may be put off at first by the editing and production devices like hard cuts, white flashes, time-lapse footage and drenched colors. But I think that’s only because many of these devices have been appropriated by car commercials. Here, they work and it’s goddamn touching. And in these days of puffery and platitudes, it’s heartening to watch a documentary film like that.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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