Thursday, October 21, 2010

In a Lonely Place

I AM SECRET-
LY AN IMPOR-
TANT MAN

(Peter Sillen, US,
2010, 87 mins.)

I don't know if any place is a good place for poets.
-- Steven Jes-
se Bernstein
(1950-1991)


In the opening credits to his film about Steven
Jesse Bernstein
, Peter Sillen paints the darkest por-
trait of Seattle since Trouble in Mind. While you could make a similar case for Police Beat, Sillen films the Jet City like an Edward Hopper painting. The guy sitting at the counter, nursing a cup of black coffee: Bernstein.

The rest of it doesn't feel as noirish, though artist Susy Schneider recalls
how she and Jesse used to shoot guns. Unlike Kurt Cobain, however, he wouldn't turn one against himself (or anyone else). Talking about his work to network anchor--and one-time King County executive candidate--Su-
san Hutchinson in 1989, however, Bernstein does use the word "dark."

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Sillen uses home movie footage to show Jesse typing, reading, and smoking cigarettes. (Towards the end of his life, Bern-
stein called to ask me to bring a pack to the hospital. I declined, and he
let forth a stream of blood-curdling invective. To this day, I don't know
how he got my number at KCMU. I later found out he called several col-
leagues until he found one, Scott, willing to yield to his illicit request.)

Other speakers testify to Bernstein's loyalty, compassion, and unbridled
rage, of which I got a small taste. Amongst the interviews, Sillen works
in poems (via text, readings, and recordings) and shots of Bernstein's Seattle: neon-lit bars, noisy factories, and brick storefronts. Visually, the film recalls A.J. Schnack's Cobain documentary, About a Son, except his subject's image is largely absent from that film; here, it's everywhere.

Fantagraphics curator Larry Reid notes that the press dubbed Bernstein the godfather of grunge, but Reid more accurately describes him as an or-
ator
. Jesse opened for Big Black and Nirvana, but he was more of a beat poet, who played in jazz bands and performed with a stand-up bass play-
er. I met his stepson, Julian, when I was working at Cellophane Square. One day, he told me Bernstein was teaching him to play blues guitar.

Sillen also interviews rel-
atives, like his brother,
Jeff, who looks almost
nothing like him, and
Northwest notables, like
photographer Charles
Peterson, Slim Moon (Kill
Rock Stars), Bruce Pavitt
(Sub Pop), Dave Reisch
(Holy Modal Rounders), and
Steve Fisk, who produced
Prison. They talk about his
need to create, his time in
mental facilities, his prob-
lems with drugs and alco-
hol, and his move from LA.

In the annals of local cinema, I Am Secretly an Important Man does-
n't just document a fascinating figure, but gives pride of place to Old Seat-
tle, aligning it closer to Martin Bell's Streetwise than to the work of Alan Rudolph or Robinson Devor. What comes through most clearly is that no one looked, talked, or wrote quite like Bernstein. If you've heard of him, then you already know how he died, and there's no need to rehash the details (he took his own life). Suffice to say that, as in many of the bet-
ter profiles, Sillen prioritizes the man's life and work over his demise.

Unfortunately, too many filmmakers, operating under the best of inten-
tions, begin with the untimely death of their subject before working their way backwards (John Walter's How to Draw a Bunny, a portrait of artist Ray Johnson, is one of the few to make a virtue out of this tired trope). The impression is that their film wouldn't exist otherwise. That's morbid.

Despite the darkness inherent
in Bernstein's poetry, it was also
funny, and he knew how to have
a good time--until he didn't. Of
everyone, Jeff sums him up best,
"In some ways, he was like the
guy who goes in and turns up
the contrast on everything."

This is a short film, and it can't
address every issue, but Pe-
ter Sillen does something si-
milar: he turns the contrast up on a person worth remembering.

I Am Secretly an Important
Man
plays the Northwest Film
Forum 10/22-28. The NWFF is
located at 1515 12th Ave. be-
tween Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more information, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Imag-
es from Anna Jennings and Arthur S. Aubry (another KCMU alumnus).

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