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