Important? Maybe, but fearless for sure

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, October 21, 2010 6:31pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Steven Jesse Bernstein’s suicide on Oct. 22, 1991, has an arbitrary quality; he might have survived and gone on to decades of writing poetry and performing. Or, his mental demons and periodic substance abuse might have taken him from the scene years earlier.

That’s the impression one gets from “I Am Secretly an Important Man,” a new documentary about Bernstein’s life, directed by Peter Sillen. Bernstein was an arresting figure in the Seattle literary and music arena for many years and this movie is a worthy tribute.

In a curious way, the film echoes “Wheedle’s Groove,” a recent documentary about the Seattle soul music scene of the 1970s: Like those musicians, Steven Jesse Bernstein never broke through to the big time, yet he seems representative of a particular time and place.

Sillen has photographs and home movies to illustrate the years before Bernstein became a writer. An imaginative kid in California, drawn to the guitar, Bernstein was uncontrollable enough to be institutionalized as a teen. After escaping and knocking around, he landed in Seattle.

Footage from various performances gives the flavor of Bernstein’s writing. For me, he was more interesting as a performer and agitator than as a writer, but he had a devoted following (Oliver Stone put one of his performances on the “Natural Born Killers” soundtrack).

Bernstein fell into a gap that came after the Beat generation writers and before the breakthrough of Seattle-bred music at the turn of the ’90s. One publication called him “the godfather of grunge,” which has a good ring to it. Bernstein even put out an album recorded at the Monroe penitentiary.

Recollections paint a portrait of a spiky, volatile, sometimes threatening person. Late in the film, we meet Bernstein’s two sons, now grown men, who come across as oddly normal.

Bernstein’s presence on film is peculiar and abrasive. Skinny, jug-eared, bowlegged from childhood polio, he brandished his outsider status in a direct way.

You can see how people might have responded to his sheer defiance. In footage of him reading poetry before a concert, someone shouts out, “We want music!”

After a superbly timed beat, Bernstein growls, “This is music, (expletive).” Now that’s the way to stand down an unsympathetic crowd.

An important man? Maybe, maybe not. But reckless and fearless, definitely.

“I Am Secretly an Important Man”

Documentary portrait of Steven Jesse Bernstein, a volatile fixture on the Seattle literary and music scene before his suicide in 1991. Rated: Not rated, probably R for language

Showing: Northwest Film Forum

Talk to us

More in Life

Ash was rescued along with Dexter, just before his euthanasia date. (Luisa Loi / Whidbey News-Times)
Whidbey Island woman rescues 300 German shepherds

“Can I save them all? No,” Renee Carr, of Oak Harbor said. “But I’m gonna try my hardest.”

Artist Michelle Downes prepares to work on a few canvases in her garage workspace on Thursday, July 6, 2023, at her family’s home in Stanwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Stanwood artist Michelle Downes creates layered dreamscapes in resin

Resin is one part chemistry and one part artistry. Downes combines the two to make art that captures the imagination.

The 2023 Infiniti QX80 has standard rear-wheel drive and optional four-wheel drive available on all models. (Infiniti)
2023 Infiniti QX80 is powerful and posh

A mighty V8 engine does the work while a luxurious interior provides the pleasure.

Kotor's zigzagging town wall rewards climbers with a spectacular view. (Cameron Hewitt / Rick Steves' Europe)
Rick Steves: Just south of Dubrovnik lies unpolished Montenegro

One of Europe’s youngest nations offers dramatic scenery, locals eager to show off their unique land, and a refreshing rough-around-the-edges appeal.

TSR image for calendar
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

This weekend in Snohomish: The Snohomish Blues Invasion and the Snohomish Studio Tour 2023.

Made by Bruce Hutchison, the poster for “A Momentary Diversion on the Road to the Grave” is an homage to 1985 classic “The Goonies.” (Photo provided)
Indie film premiering on Whidbey Island

Filmed almost entirely on Whidbey Island, “A Momentary Diversion on the Road to the Grave” is set to premiere in Langley.

TSR image only
Does your elementary school child have ADHD?

It’s important to identify children with this condition so we can help them succeed in school.

Barb Denton smiles and laughs with her Jeep Cherokee Laredo that she has driven for 32 years on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
‘Red Dragon,’ stolen from Sea-Tac, mysteriously returns home to Everett

Barb Denton’s rig of 348,000 miles was found three miles from home, intact, with a half-tank of gas and an empty bag of Oberto sticks.

This photo provided by OceanGate Expeditions shows a submersible vessel named Titan used to visit the wreckage site of the Titanic. In a race against the clock on the high seas, an expanding international armada of ships and airplanes searched Tuesday, June 20, 2023, for the submersible that vanished in the North Atlantic while taking five people down to the wreck of the Titanic. (OceanGate Expeditions via AP)
A new movie based on OceanGate’s Titan submersible tragedy is in the works: ‘Salvaged’

MindRiot announced the film, a fictional project titled “Salvaged,” on Friday.

This Vacasa rental is disgusting. Can I get my money back?

The vacation rental Carol Wilson books for her group through Vacasa is infested with rats and insects. Vacasa offers to refund one night, but can they get all of their money back?

A woman diverts from her walk on Colby Avenue to take a closer look at a pickup truck that was partly crushed by a fallen tree during an overnight wind storm Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in north Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / Herald file)
Storm season is coming. Here’s how to prepare for power outages.

The most important action you can take is to make an emergency preparedness kit.

Do you prefer green or red grapes? This antique Moser pitcher is decorated with enameled grapevines on shaded red-to-green glass.
Grapevine pitcher was made by renowned Bohemian company

Also, queries about grandmother’s coffee set and late husband’s Beatles records and memorabilia collection.