Robert "Benjamin" Dickerson was the singer, and Smoke was the Atlanta-based band. Benjamin's voice bared all his guts and sounded as eerie as the ghosts that haunt the South; his lyrics were dark and full of beautiful decay. In Benjamin Smoke, the latest documentary from Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen, Benjamin speaks with a gentle, boyish voice, about how music gets him off, about being a junkie, about keeping his HIV-positive status relatively private.
Director Cohen was a photographer before directing Instrument, the beautiful yet long-winded Fugazi documentary. This time, his subject matter is more grave, and Cohen refines his style to the occasion, handling Benjamin with the delicacy of a brother. He manipulates the camera from a photographer's point of view, his instinct for composition and the importance of single images more like a series of beautiful, connected events than a movie. Shots of Benjamin, a thinly angular cross-dresser, and the somewhat destitute and dusty suburb of Atlanta where he lives, are like the old Land Camera snapshots you might find at an antique shop--exquisitely mysterious, timeless, and poignant.
Though Benjamin seems to be high on junk for much of the film, his words are simple and aching. He knows more about himself than most people ever do, and despite that he's slowly dying of AIDS, he never gets sucked into the quicksand of self-pity. Instead, he muses about his situation, saying poetic things like, "I don't know where the beautiful stops and the difficult begins." Benjamin has the potential to be an annoying subject, but Cohen and Sillen ask him the right questions, celebrating his life and innocence rather than exploiting his faults.
And when he sings, there's something about the deliverance from his own pain that rings through the voice of remarkable Benjamin Smoke, like nothing else matters but his words. Patti Smith is wrong; Benjamin sings more like life than death.