It’s a tough league to play in, this Seattle indie film game, after all the hoopla attending such homegrown festival-circuit hits as Horse, Humpday, Police Beat, and The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle.
Then again, there’s Cthulhu, the most spectacular failure in local film history, which got a nostalgic rescreening (with famously frank commentary by writer/producer/subject of current Seattle Met profile Grant Cogswell) two nights ago at Northwest Film Forum in prelude to their 13th annual regional filmmaking festival, Local Sightings (Oct 1-6).
Will any of this year’s film fest entries attain such renown or notoriety? Probably not. But here’s a head’s up on three notable documentaries, out of the 11 features (plus scores of shorts) packed into one short week.
Bad Writing by Vernon Lott
Sunday, Oct 3, 5pm
This engaging, disarmingly self-deprecating documentary proves there’s no garbage in a writer’s life, only compost. At first Vernon Lott seems out to prove the opposite. He not only shares the crude, preening adolescent verse he wrote in his 20s (no prodigy, he), when he knew he was world’s greatest poet. He shows film of his bleary, cigarette-dangling youthful self reading the stuff. How could we not side with him? We’ve all been there.
Lott then chases the question, What is bad writing? And, Why can’t we help doing it? He elicits opinions and confessions from various young aspirants, seasoned teachers, and the odd passing star (Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris). Imperceptibly the inquiry changes to, What is writing? and Why do we do it? Bad Writing drags a bit then, though not as much as a straight-on treatment would. (Imagine a 27-part Writing by Ken Burns. No, don’t.) In the end its effect is consoling and encouraging. It makes you want to go write.
Citizen Mayor by Koi Walker
Sunday, Oct 3, 7pm
Seattle’s upset 2009 mayor’s race had the makings of a great political documentary, and at first Koi Walker seems on the way to making it. But Citizen Mayor never digs past the public personas, soundbite news, and usual campaign frenzy and camaraderie. Where’s the fly-on-the-wall access, the inside strategy sessions of classics like The War Room? Instead we get eager volunteers declaring their passion for democracy, the jilted, marginalized also-rans complaining about media neglect, and the unflappable Mike McGinn pedaling to victory while more established candidates spin off the road. The film poises uncertainly between election study and celebration of McGinn, with too little context on both counts. (Anyone who’d looked at McGinn’s previous Sierra Club organizing could have told the blinkered pundits he was a candidate to take very seriously.)
Citizen Mayor’s sharpest insights come from veteran political mavens Blair Butterworth and Nick Licata. But you don’t need a movie to find out what they think.
I Am Secretly an Important Man by Peter Sillen
Wednesday, Oct 6, 8pm
Local Sightings closes in a rush of neo-beat nostalgia with this long-awaited bio of the legendary doomed poet/performer Jesse Bernstein, screening at the very theater (the Moore) where he once opened for his mentor William Burroughs. Bernstein was Seattle’s poet laureate of grunge, and everyone still wants a piece of his gutter glamour—didja know I bumped into him at a party or two? So Peter Sillen has no problem collecting vivid, sometimes hilarious, sometimes alarming recollections. Even those who really did know Bernstein will probably discover some new piece—another wife, another crazy caper—of his puzzle here.
Intimate as all this is the film’s also a portrait of an era. Even in postmortem snippets, Bernstein is a riveting presence, with an outsized voice as gravelly as a street drunk’s and as resonant and finely enunciated as a Shakespearean actor’s. Sillen assembles an astonishing trove of footage, images, and recollections of Bernstein’s childhood and heroically troubled adolescence in California. But questions linger. Why did Bernstein choose Seattle? What particular refuge did it offer till madness caught up with him? Was writing his salvation, or a fatal slippery slope?
We don’t get enough of Bernstein’s work to see how it differs from the usual Burroughs/Bukowski-esque dark hipster braggadocio. I came away wondering if each happy poet knows his own peculiar joy, while unhappy poets are all the same.
Local Sightings runs Oct 1-6 at Northwest Film Forum. The opening night “Party Like It’s 1995” fete is Friday, October 1; tickets are $5.