Remembering Noah Cowan: Benjamin Smoke

IFC Center presents a special evening in celebration of Noah Cowan, who, for more than three decades, worked as a film and visual art curator, programmer, journalist, and executive, including a vital stint in New York City running Cowboy Pictures with IFC Center GM John Vanco from 1997-2002. 

Cowan died after a year-long battle with glioblastoma multiforme on January 25, 2023.

On Thursday, March 16 at 7pm, we’ll salute the contributions Cowan made to international film by screening what was perhaps his favorite project while running Cowboy, BENJAMIN SMOKE, the feature documentary directed by Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen, and executive produced by Cowan. Vanco, the film’s directors and other guests will be present, and additional content from the Cowboy era will be screened.

100% of box office will be donated in Cowan’s name at the Museum of Modern Art, per his wishes.

Noah Cowan, second from left.

BENJAMIN SMOKE opened on July 21, 2000 at The Screening Room, NYC, the calendar cinema that Cowan and Cowboy Pictures programmed. Here is Cowan’s original program note on the film:

“With a throat smooth as a lamb / Yet dry as a branch not yet snapping / He throws back his head / Yet he does not sing a thing mournful.” – Patti Smith (from “Death Singing”)

“For a faggot, do I have a rockin’ band or what?” – Benjamin

(D. Jem Cohen/Peter Sillen. 80m. USA.)

He is a country boy with a sapphire-blue party dress singing for a punk-country-blues band called Smoke. This highly unorthodox documentary follows the crooked path of Benjamin (no last name). He lives in a hidden neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia called “Cabbagetown.” Drag-queen, speed freak, all-around renegade, Benjamin left the straight (in every sense of the word) world behind a long time ago. Introduced to Benjamin in 1989 by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, the filmmakers worked on and off for years, painting a complicated portrait of Benjamin and his environment. The plot thickened as he struggled with AIDS, and took an amazing turn when his heroine, Patti Smith, became an integral part of the story. Both a window on a rarely documented underground music scene and an exploration of what it means to be queer, the film is as hilarious as it is harrowing. America, and American cinema, have always loved the idea of the rebel, but how often does it really get to meet one?

A Cowboy Booking International Release

Here’s Lucy Sante on BENJAMIN SMOKE, from the New York Times in 2000.


John Vanco on Cowan, from Screen Daily’s appreciation of Cowan’s life, published on January 30, 2023:

Vanco, with whom Cowan co-founded New York-based distributor Cowboy Pictures in 1993, said: “Noah was my best friend and business partner for many years. He provided the vision for us to be creative, to cherish and elevate artists in cinema, and to have fun while doing it.”

Now senior vice president and general manager of New York arthouse theater IFC Center, Vanco added: “I’m grateful for everything he created at Cowboy Pictures, and, especially, for how many people he ultimately inspired to take serious movies seriously, but not too seriously. I’ll miss him forever.”


For more information, also see Scott Macaulay’s obituary in Filmmaker Magazine, where Cowan was a writer and editor.

And this terrific repository of some of Cowan’s writing on film and art across thirty years was organized by Cowan and Scott Macaulay.


Top photo credit: Michael Ackerman

  • Running Time 80 minutes

IFC Center does not generally provide advisories about subject matter or potentially triggering content in films, as sensitivities vary from person to person. In addition to the synopses, trailers and other links on our website, further information about content and age-appropriateness for specific films can be found on Common Sense Media, IMDb and as well as through general internet searches.