Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen's Celebrity Doc of a Different Sort "Benjamin Smoke"
by Ed Halter
(indieWIRE/ 7.21.00) -- Largely unknown outside the Georgia indie music scene, but notorious within it, husky-voiced drag-loving pill-popping singer Benjamin lived an outsider artist life of pharmacological excess and trash-bin glamour. Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen's new documentary, "Benjamin Smoke," bucks recent trends towards slick celebrity biography and mundane reality programming by bringing a unique, personal and utterly fascinating portrait of this Southern hell's belle.
Crafted with decade-old Super 8 footage and grainy black-and-white 16 mm, featuring images from damaged snapshots and shot in the shambles of the singer's decaying home in Cabbagetown, Georgia, "Benjamin Smoke" is a documentary that looks as elegantly superannuated and ephemeral as its subject, who died shortly before completion of the film, at age 39.
Indie stalwart Jem Cohen is known for a wide variety of lyrical works, ranging from Super 8 travelogues to music videos to his recent "Instrument," a long-form documentary about DC band Fugazi. His films have screened at the New York Film Festival, the Whitney Biennial, the Rotterdam Film Festival and other festivals worldwide. Pete Sillen is best known for his 1993 documentary short "Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chestnutt," a portrait of another eccentric outsider Southern musician which played at Sundance 1994. "Benjamin Smoke" is the first theatrically released feature for both directors. indieWIRE spoke recently to Cohen and Sillen about "Benjamin Smoke's" relation to the Georgia music scene, American rebels, and mainstream celebrity culture.
indieWIRE: How did you two end up working on "Benjamin Smoke" together?
Jem Cohen: There wasn't really any concrete beginning. We were both turned on to Benjamin because of the Michael Stipe connection. He introduced both of us to Benjamin. I had seen Benjamin's early band, the Opal Foxx Quartet, and in 1989 I started hanging out with them a little bit, went into studios with them when they recorded demos and shot Super 8. When I shoot Super 8, it never occurs to me that it's for anything. It was a few years after that Pete and I went into cahoots. And we still weren't thinking that we were making a movie, and definitely didn't think we were making a feature. We were like, this guy's amazing, this is a really interesting phenomenon, let's start documenting it.
Pete Sillen: Jem and I really got to know each other on the making of "Speed Racer," my film on Vic Chestnutt, and Jem was also in that whole scene in Athens at the time. He helped out and shot additional camera on "Speed Racer." It was Michael [Stipe] who sort of planted the seed very early on that "Benjamin" would be an amazing subject for a documentary. It's funny, because without having a lot of influence on the film, Michael very much was the seed of it. And in the end, he helped out a good deal [through Stipe's production company, C-100], so it was full circle.
iW: At what point did Cowboy Booking come on the project?
Cohen: Cowboy came on in the middle of post-production. I had met Noah [Cowan, President of Cowboy Booking] because of talking to him from having stuff in Toronto. I showed him a rough cut [of "Benjamin Smoke"] and he was just super supportive of the project. It seems pretty obvious that a distributor's not going to attach themselves to this movie because they think it's going to be a big hit. It was clear that there was some kind of personal commitment on their part, which is really nice.
iW: What type of distribution is the film getting after The Screening Room?
Sillen: It's a work in progress. As it's unfolding, they'll see the demand for it. But it probably won't be screening at everybody's local cineplex.
iW: What has the reaction been like at festivals?
Sillen: We've had some really nice screenings, very positive, warm receptive audiences and I've been surprised at some of the diversity in the crowd. I think that it can easily get stereotyped as a certain type of film. God, in Seattle there were old ladies, and there were punks and everything in between, and they all stayed and people were really engaging in the questions and answers.
Cohen : You work on it for so long, and you kind of forget, in some ways, how strong certain aspects of it are. There are some people who are freaked out, and that's heavy. Some people are really moved and touched and think it's really poignant. Other people are really confrontational like, "This is so heavy, why did you make a film about this?" The most negative response has been like, " Why should we watch this; why should we have to look at somebody like that?" It's pretty intense, from some people. Generally, it's overwhelmingly positive, but there have been a few people who have been genuinely thrown by it.
iW: Jem, you wrote in the film's press notes that "Benjamin Smoke" is a rejection of the celebrity-centered documentaries that have become so prevalent. How did you see that rejection in the shaping of the film, and what kind of decisions did you make with that in mind? Or do you think that this rejection comes by the very nature of the film's subject?
Cohen: Well, Benjamin is a marginal character, an archetypal underground legend. I mean way underground, you know. There are definitely people outside Atlanta that knew about his band, but if you were in Atlanta and you knew about the underground, you probably knew about Benjamin. So on a certain level, he is a notorious figure, with some of that legendary status. He was so uncompromising in his life and his work, that there was no way he could have been a celebrity in this society. I don't think that any major label was really able to deal with him, to be able to touch that live a wire. So I think that the film kind of confronts the idea of what a genuine renegade is. We really like the idea, in a kind of romanticized way, of the rebel. . .
Sillen: When he looks like Brad Pitt or something.
Cohen: Yeah, that's what American cinema loves, like Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp as a rebel. But they really don't want to deal with the real thing, because the real thing is fucked up and uncomfortable and disturbing and crazy passionate, and it's just not controllable.
iW: Did you at any point see parallels between how Benjamin lived his life, or how someone lives one's life in indie rock culture, and the way that you two have lived your own lives as filmmakers, in artistic choices and other choices you've made?
Cohen: Well, Pete and I can't compare ourselves too much, because Pete's a family man with two kids. And I'm no speed freak, I'm no drag queen, and I'm not, like, an outsider to society. On the other hand, I definitely respond to someone who functions outside of the mainstream in their own way or as in an extreme way as Fugazi. They've set up their own thing, and they're gonna live it out. I am fascinated by that devotion to a life outside of the norm. That's different from feeling like I can compare myself. But, yes I am inspired by people like that. In Benjamin's case, there's a real tragic side. In Fugazi's, there isn't. Because in Benjamin's case, there's a lot of horrible, self-destructive behavior attached to being that far outside of society, and I don't want to romanticize that.
Sillen: For me, there are certain very obvious parallels between my two films ["Speed Racer" and "Benjamin Smoke"] and it makes me very nervous because I didn't intend it as such. And then, I'm working on another film that also has similar parallels. It's about Jesse Bernstein [a musician who suffered from alcoholism and committed suicide].
Cohen: You make a couple of films and then people assume that's the kind of film that you make. And so, I had ten years of people thinking, "Oh, you make the black and white Super 8 really raw street stuff." I mean I make five films in 16 mm color, and people are still thinking about "This is the History of New York." Right now, I'm coming off of "Instrument," and putting out "Benjamin Smoke," and I did "Lucky Three" [with Elliot Smith], and people are like, "Oh, you do those music portraits, and you and Peter are working together because he does music portraits." But it's a little unfair, because who knows what we'll go on to do. I mean, I want to do a narrative feature.
But you're definitely on to something as far as I'm concerned. I don't want to talk for Pete, but the more that the mainstream dominates, the more I'm fascinated by watching people turn their backs on it. The problem isn't "mainstream," the problem is "dominates." I'm real curious about artists who find another path and are fierce about it, because it's increasingly rare.
Sillen: For me, people that are very passionate to some degree, they don't have a choice. This is something that is them. The way they cope with all the things you have to cope with is through their art or through their work. And I'm drawn to that as well.
[Ed Halter is director of the NY Underground Film Festival, contributing film critic for the NY Press, and director of film content for Insound.]