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).

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Modern Gladiators

SWEETHEARTS OF THE PRISON RODEO
(Bradley Beesley, 2010, US, HD, 90 mins.)




Oklahoma filmmaker Bradley Beesley has profiled the Flaming Lips and Okie noodlers (bare-handed fishermen). With Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, he turns to incarcerated bronc riders and steer ropers, men and women who risk serious injury for a few seconds of glory. He begins six weeks before 2007's event, working in the impressions of convicts and correctional officers, and captures the contestants as they try out for teams, practice, attend parole hearings, and go about their daily routine.

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His subjects include 14-year veteran Danny Liles, a 47-year-old convicted murderer,
and Brandy "Foxie" Witte, a 23-year-old convicted felon, who searches for her birth
family during the course of the documentary. To Liles, who's served 25 years, incar-
ceration represents "years and years of boredom with moments of adrenalin." Vin-
tage film clips bring 70 years of prison rodeo history to life, while an inter-title notes that Oklahoma offers one of only two left in the world. Until 2006, the event was an

all-male affair, but now welcomes women from Eddie Warrior Correctional Center
in addition to men from the Oklahoma State Penitentiary and 10 other facilities.

According to Attorney Irven Box, more women do time in Oklahoma than any other
state--which already suffers from an alarming rate of drug abuse and domestic vio-
lence. No one can predict what will happen to any of these prisoners when they get out, but it's heartening to see them work hard and to support their teammates, skills that will prove beneficial to those with a release date in their future. Beesley chose his subjects well, and it's hard not to root for their success in the ring--and beyond.

[image]

Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo plays the Northwest Film Forum 10/8-10 at 7
and 9pm. Beesley won't be present to introduce his film, but he will be in town
from 10/4-8 to serve as a juror for the NWFF's Local Sightings Festival. The NW-
FF is located at 1515 12th Ave between Pike and Pine. For more information,
please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from Mubi.com.