Video Vanguard; Mensch Musician

The festival kicks off with Trent Harris's Beaver Trilogy. Harris made a TV-news-style documentary about a young man from Beaver, Utah, who impersonated Olivia Newton-John in his hometown talent show. Over the next eight years, Harris remade the documentary, not once but twice. The first time, he cast the then unknown Sean Penn as the fledgling transvestite. The second time, he enticed Crispin Glover into playing the role. The Beaver Trilogy, filmed between 1980 and 1988, is an oddity; although there are probably many similarly strange videos stored in people's closets, it's unlikely that any of them have the star power of this one.

A more delicate, raunchier drag-queen heartbreaker, Benjamin—the focus of the documentary Benjamin Smoke—had the face of Tom Verlaine and the voice of Tom Waits. An Atlanta singer-songwriter and an underground music legend, he died of AIDS in 1999. Off and on for 10 years, Jem Cohen filmed him performing in clubs with his bands, the Opal Foxx Quartet and Smoke, and in his Cabbagetown house, where he shared his insights into music, drugs, and sexuality; modeled his treasured blue taffeta cocktail dress; and proved himself in every way a mensch.

Galaxy chest: George Kuchar’s Secrets of the Shadow World
photo: New York Video Festival 2000
Galaxy chest: George Kuchar’s Secrets of the Shadow World


The New York Video Festival 2000
Walter Reade
July 21 through 27

Benjamin Smoke
Directed by Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen
Screening Room
July 21 through 27

With Peter Sillen, Cohen shaped the footage into Benjamin Smoke, a film as ethereal, moving, and uncompromising as its subject. Cohen captures the intensity of Benjamin's music and his performing persona. Like its frail but resilient protagonist, the film cherishes the poverty of its materials (it's shot in both black-and-white and color on scraps of 16mm and Super 8) and uses them to expressive effect. The filmmakers, however, make a misstep when they bring in Patti Smith to read a poem in Benjamin's honor. Benjamin, who started wearing dresses when he was nine, didn't realize that he could be a musician until he heard Horses as a teenager. And since the high point of his last years seems to have been opening for Smith when her band played Atlanta, he would have been thrilled that Smith is in the movie. But Smith has a celebrity and a marquee value that Benjamin did not, and to put her center screen at the climax of the film undermines the celebration of its main figure. This quibble aside, Benjamin Smoke is a bittersweet pleasure.

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