Benjamin is a speed-freak, a musician, and a cross-dresser who claims that marijuana saved his life. And he reminds me of carl from Sling Blade, both in voice and appearance. Unfortunately, this doesn't add up to as entertaining a documentary as it sounds.
Benjamin Smoke was filmed over ten years and features interviews with Benjamin and a few members of his band, Smoke. Benjamin is definitely a performer, as he talks slow and deep, letting the world be his stage as he discusses drugs and music and HIV with the camera. There is a lot of texture here, and the film seems to truly capture the renegade's spirit. However, there isn't quite enough narrative to tie it all together into a powerful film.
To really feel for Benjamin, I needed to know more. Interviews and clips of performances are fine, but there needs to be a string that ties everything together. Whenever I found myself feeling a particular emotion relating to something he said, whether it was his desire for drugs or his need to dress as a woman, that feeling wouldn't be sustained because the next clip was unrelated to the previous. That's not to say I wanted an MTV-style day-in-the-life kind of thing. Rather, I wanted to learn about how the things he did as a youth effected him at one point in his life, then how he felt about those same feelings again ten years later, when he was struggling with HIV.
As it stands, the film is only as powerful as any particular scene. Instead of building upon one another, each holds its own nugget of emotion and truth. Each scene certainly seems to embody Benjamin's spirit and persona. And the lack of a cohesive narrative also fits Benjamin's character. But in the end, the film left me wanting more. I wanted to invest my time and emotion with the man on the screen, unfortunately, I was never truly allowed to.
Plexifilms presents Benjamin Smoke in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The film was shot on all sorts of different formats (Super 8, Hi-8, and DV) and it shows. There is very litte consistency in this transfer. Some of the color scenes look crisp and clear, while others are soft. The black and white scenes are generally grainy and dark, but some look surprisingly clean. However, for the most part, the bad outweigh the good.
For example, there is very little detail in the shadows throughout this film, and scratches are evident consistently. There are even the occassional halo effects thrown in for good measure. Considering the source material, I couldn't have expected much more from this transfer, but that doesn't negate the fact that it's of mediocre quality.
This disc only offers a 2.0 track. The voices are clean and the music is presented nicely. The micophone occassionally picks up too much ambiance noise, but that's not the fault of the DVD. This track offers a small amount of bass, but with interviews filling most of the 70 minutes, it's more than adequate.
THE BONUS FEATURES
All this disc offers are deleted scenes, but you get a lot of them: 47 minutes worth to be precise. Many of the clips feature interviews with Benjamin, but there are also performances by Cat Power and Vic Chesnutt, who wrote songs about Benjamin. These scenes don't hold the same weight or power as the ones that made the final cut, but had they been cut into the film, that might've been different. If you've enjoyed the film, you'll enjoy the extra scenes.
Benjamin Smoke does a fine job capturing the essence of an estranged musician, but it doesn't contain enough narative to truly speak to me. It's an interesting piece, but one that I can't do more than recommend a rental.