Benjamin Smoke (2003) (NTSC)

If you create a user account, you can add your own review of this DVD

Released 1-Sep-2003

Cover Art

This review is sponsored by

Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Booklet
Additional Footage
Rating ?
Year Of Production 2003
Running Time 73:39 (Case: 118)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (62:51) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Jem Cohen
Peter Sillen
Cowboy Pictures
Stomp Visual
Starring Benjamin Dickerson
Tim Campion
Brian Halloran
Coleman Lewis
Bill Taft
Patti Smith
Case Alpha-Transparent
RPI $27.95 Music None Given

Video (NTSC) Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 480i (NTSC)
Original Aspect Ratio Unknown Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes, Incessant
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis


     Do you just see the decimated man igniting another nail in his coffin? Or the swooping raptor above his shoulder? Or do these images converge to reveal an all-seeing, passive eye above? Do you see the acceptance and determination? Do you see the omniscient understanding that life is hard? Do you see the gentle acceptance that the brief moments of life's beauties are still precious? Do you see a maverick act of grace in the face of foreboding realities? Do you see an outrageous, difficult soul? Do you see something else? Can you hear Death sing?

     Patti Smith can. Touched by her mutual muse - the Atlantan musician Benjamin - she wrote a lyric that spoke richly and poignantly of a strange, complicated man who found his strange and complicated niche in a strange and complicated small-town Atlanta district called Cabbagetown - a town where "kids go to jail early" - well, at least after they've been busy building go-karts under his window ("I'll try to remember to tell you that so you don't think I'm farting" says Benjamin with a sardonic grin). But, what hope the kids when the parents are, in Benjamin's estimation, more interested in their inhalant fixations than in their parental responsibilities? Benjamin is a difficult man who performs difficult music that reflects his difficult life. His incanted lyrics drew to my mind my first encounter with Tom Waits - I recall having an intensely adverse reaction to good Tom when first I heard him - but I also found him outrageously compelling, and the force of his lyricism irrevocably created a die-hard fan out of me. In truth, Tom is but a primer for the character that is Benjamin. Benjamin is uncompromising, irascible, candid, tragic, noble, honest, problematic, and a person who revels in all the contradictions he reveals. And, in further truth - I found his music IMPOSSIBLE when I first heard it. BUT - on second viewing of this DVD, the hook got in. I watched the session with his band Smoke again, and I realised that I was totally looking forward to the hand-clap bridge - and - I kinda gottit.

     Filmmakers Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen spent 10 years following Benjamin about a bit. Using every bit of film stock they could grab at the time, they allowed opportunity to be the master over finesse - and in the process - they created the perfect documentary about this remarkable muso. Benjamin, as an aficionado of found-objects, would approve of this grab-bag of cinematic impressions. He speaks with languid candour, mostly through a bemused fuddle, and frequently wearing a turquoise silk dress. This cross-dressing, obtuse-thinking rebel reveals how he lives his life as art itself, in a manner reminiscent of Nijinsky's outrageous exploits. His drug-addled musings and speedball-strafed incoherence still manage to reveal an acutely intelligent mind. He is unapologetic about his lifestyle choices, and seeks no sympathy for their consequences. He frequently appears to be remarkably detached from his own suffering, and indeed invites his circumstances to become as bad as they can possibly be. It is only in performing that the full spark comes to light with Benjamin. Slung listlessly in a chair, he is totally consumed by the strange, warped lilts rendered by a moaning cello, a whiney electric guitar and a sinusy trumpet. Totally transported by the music ("It's like totally getting off on the best orgasm. What's that like? It's like chicken... only gamier."), he begins his assault on his intelligent and sardonic lyrics with a chanting voice that sounds like a washboard being scraped over blue-metal. There is no artifice in Benjamin's performance. There is no delivery or packaging for his audience. They will either get it, or they won't - either way - it's not his problem. Immediately after finishing his final song, he swoops off his chair and disappears, not waiting for any "lurv" from his admirers. In many ways - he appears to only really exist when he's singing. All other elements of his life seem to be simply vaguely interesting or amusing intervals between the times when he can make music.

     This is a fascinating piece of cinema that makes no particular attempt to follow along the normal didactic lines of a documentary. We are given glimpses of the blond, tousle headed young boy who came into the world in 1960 with the name Robert Dickerson via photographic glimpses, but there is no significant attempt to reconstruct his life or explain the gradual emergence of the singly-named Benjamin. Amidst his vague and aimless ramblings, tiny silken threads of information are teased out, heavily coloured by his present day perceptions, and the filmmakers are content to allow that to remain without further investigation. The time it took to collect this material is a precious resource - we see time, and circumstance and sickness make their plays with him, and see his strange acceptance of them all.

     Perhaps the Los Angeles Times quote on the slick says it best: "A haunting portrait of a lyricist-singer who is the very embodiment of the famous observation that burning the candle at both ends produces such a lovely light." Well said.

     Benjamin Smoke is a film that will never enjoy broad-based appeal. Both its subject matter and its filmic style will by no means be to everyone's taste. But if the photograph displayed above piqued your interest, then perhaps this is a film worthy of your consideration. It is not the easiest of rides, but it's a fascinating and movingly intimate journey. I found it a rather profound and challenging experience.

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


     This is the second Plexifilm DVD presentation I have reviewed, and it's a resounding two-for-two. These guys really know something about DVD presentation. Their extras are thoughtful and meaningful, their transfers are respectful, and their packaging is superb!

     The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, FullScreen, which the box at least insists is "preserving the ratio of its original theatrical exhibition". IMDB states that it was filmed in 16mm, but given how the actual stocks used varied according to what was available to Cohen and Sillen at the time, let's draw a veil over this discussion.

     Given the variance of the film stocks used, discussions of technical presentation are almost meaningless. Suffice it to say the transfer itself is excellent, and presents no additional technical problems that weren't inherent in the parent stock.

     The colours are equally variable in the original material. It flicks from segments in colour in available light to grainy black & white imagery. But all of these are absolutely part of the charm.

     This presentation is largely artefact free from a transfer point of view. The high levels of grain and the almost nauseating aliasing are sins committed (capriciously and with abandon) by the filmmakers themselves, and not exacerbated by any transfer crimes. I tell you truly that all of this "handmade" quality is very much part of the film's charm. This is NOT a pristine, mass-produced reference quality film. You'll NEVER see it playing on the demo unit of your home theatre shop - it's just not that kind of film!

     This is an RSDL disc, with the layer change at 62:51, but I really didn't notice it.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


     The soundtrack is delivered in English Dolby Digital 2.0.

     The dialogue is a little patchy at times, but given the levels of concentration required to properly watch this film, you should experience no difficulty in discerning what's being said. Audio sync is not really a problem in this movie, and when it is - stylistically, it just doesn't matter. There are no subtitles available.

     The music is what this film's all about. It's challenging and difficult, but ultimately rather hypnotic and fascinating.

     There is no perceptible use of surround channels or subwoofer.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use



     The menu is static and silent.

Additional Scenes

     There are 12 extra scenes which, when strung together, provide an additional 43:46 minutes of viewing. These are largely concentrated on extended presentations of Smoke performing.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

      Both the R1 and R4 presentations appear identical.


     I guess this may be the ultimate "art film" - made by artists... observing another artist. It is challenging, confronting and highly stylistic, and may be fairly described as "an acquired taste." But I found it fascinating, absorbing and strangely moving.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Mirella Roche-Parker (read my bio)
Monday, September 27, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDSinger SGD-001, using S-Video output
DisplayTeac 76cm Widescreen. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationTeac 5.1 integrated system
Speakers fronts-paradigm titans, centre &rear Sony - radio parts subbie

Other Reviews NONE
Comments (Add) NONE