Film Review

The Not-so-Secret Importance of Jesse Bernstein

Three more nights to catch the film bio of Seattle’s hallowed poet laureate of grunge.

By Eric Scigliano October 26, 2010

Jesse Bernstein, in your face.
Photo: Arthur S. Aubry, courtesy NWFF

Thursday’s the last chance to catch I Am Secretly an Important Man, the long-awaited bio of the legendary doomed poet/performer Jesse Bernstein in its regular run at the Northwest Film Forum. (It closed NWF’s Local Sightings festival earlier this month.) 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 director Peter Sillen had 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.

Still, without diminishing the reality of his pain or the tragedy of his early passing, you have to admire the elegance of Bernstein’s career arc. Few poets break out into the poposphere: Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, Leonard Cohen… Jesse Bernstein will never get to recite at a presidential inauguration (which would be something to see). But he’ll also never be heard reciting familiar glib snippets on A Prairie Home Companion or chanting insipid anthems on PBS fundraising specials.

I Am Secretly an Important Man shows at the Northwest Film Forum:
Tuesday, Oct 26 at 9:15PM
Wednesday, Oct 27 at 7 and 9 pm
Thursday, Oct 28 at 7 and 9 pm

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