Steve BernsteinI am Secretly an Important Man

USA 2010. Director: Peter Sillen
Cast: Jesse Bernstein, Susy Schnieder, Jeff Bernstein, Carol Saturensky-Young, Bonnie Swordmaker, Daemon Bernstein
Colour and B&W, Digibeta video. 87 mins.

Dates and Venue 30 Jul 8.15pm; 31 Jul 6.30pm; 1 Aug 4.30 pm | Pacific Cinematheque, Vancouver

Reviewer Ed Farolan

A Vancouver premiere. This documentary is about the life of Seattle’s Jesse Bernstein, an artist, punk poet, and dramatist who was once proclaimed “The Godfather of Grunge”. He had the distinction of having opened for both Nirvana and William S. Burroughs. And also once toured with almost-legendary psychedelic folksters The Holy Modal Rounders and, as a teenaged runaway, caught a ride on Ken Kesey’s magic bus.

This underground documentary from New York-based filmmaker Peter Sillen (co-director of Benjamin Smoke and cinematographer of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy) draws on a wealth of archival material to tell the story of a performer and writer (and, cementing his status as a grunge figurehead, Sub Pop Records recording artist) who lived and wrote about life on the fringes and called poetry his “job”; coping with the twin torments of substance abuse and mental illness.

The documenary shows him performing with a live mouse in his mouth. It also has footage of his performance singing for prisoners and doing poetry readings and performing as a film and stage actor. Intervews with his wives, two sons from two marriages, and people he was involved with during his lifetime are also documented in this film. He was voted “Seattle’s Best Local Poet” in a Seattle Weekly readers’ poll in 1989, two years before he committed suicide at the age of 40.

Sometimes I wonder whether poets are really insane. I've met a lot of poets who are eccentric to the point of insanity. I'm a poet myself, and maybe I'm insane, or maybe I'm not a real poet because I don't think I'm insane. But the usual prognosis is we're somewhat crazy. I'm probably crazy, but in a positive and constructive way, unlike punk poets like Bernstein who are crazy in a destructive way.

© 2011 Ed Farolan