The documentary on Seattle poet Jesse Bernstein, I Am Secretly An Important Man, runs through Thursday at the Clinton Street Theater. I went to see it on Saturday.
It was pretty awesome. The best parts were the footage of Bernstein. He was obsessed with being on camera, and the filmmaker tracked down a large and enlightening amount of videos, art projects, home movies, photographs, and other visual documents. The footage allows this film to breath outside of the weight of interviews and testimonies that hinder so many documentaries. In fact, the film could have used a little more testimony.
The interviewees include friends, family, lovers, and business associates. Cobbled together they present something of a complete biography. Filling in the blanks can be clumsy, but it gives the film a purpose outside of being an archive. The film displays many different sides of the poet. We see Bernstein on stage, alone in his room, shaving, writing, babbling incoherently; it's vivid and fascinating, but in the end very, very depressing as it presents a clear picture of a man deteriorating under the weight of mental illness and substance abuse.
The performances from Bernstein's sober years are much livelier than those of his later years, including one in which he's literally silenced by his own depression. At his peak Jesse Bernstein was an incredibly visceral, reactionary artist. An interview with the local Seattle news is wonderful and filled with tension. As a permed newswoman asks him about being voted Best Local Poet by the Seattle Weekly, Bernstein remains polite and articulate through the whole thing while you wonder whether he's about to start ranting about the inhuman acts that fill his work.
Such outbursts were typical of whatever undiagnosed illness Bernstein suffered from. Throughout the film various friends hazard their own guesses, from schizophrenia to an oversized brain, but the violent impulses it resulted in were very real and very scary. In a gripping interview one friend lazily describes Bernstein suddenly breaking a bottle and holding it to his friends face in the midst of a three day wedding celebration.
If the documentary suffers from anything it's reverence. Bernstein was certainly a large talent, an amazing poet and performer who lived the kind of dangerous life that middle class poseurs wish for but probably couldn't survive. Dead by suicide at age 40, it can hardly be said that Bernstein himself survived it. But he came out the other end of a hectic and troubled adolescence with a sense of purpose and a drive to create.
Ok so I managed to get this far without mentioning Seattle and the early grunge scene but Jesse Bernstein was undeniably a huge part of that. He appeared on the Sub Pop 200 compilation and opened for many of the soon to be world famous local acts. There's one great moment gushes about him performing with the like of, "Nirvana and Soundgarden and ....Tad."
Though the documentary doesn't quite get a full picture of Bernstein's life and work, it's a breezy introduction to a great writer. GO SEE IT. It runs through Thursday at the Clinton Street Theater at 7:00 and 9:00 p.m.