Film will have limited theatrical exposure but will likely enjoy a cultish afterlife.
A documentary about a poet would seem to be the definition of commercial marginalia. But the margins are exactly where Jesse Bernstein — the subject of helmer Peter Sillen’s neo-bohemian “I Am Secretly an Important Man” — spent much of his life, as a schizophrenic, junkie, porn actor and Seattle’s unofficial poet laureate during the grunge-rock movement of the ’90s. Given his due and more by Sillen’s insightful and occasionally startling portrait, Bernstein is made a complicated, even morbidly fascinating figure in a film that will have limited theatrical exposure but, like the director’s earlier work, will likely enjoy a cultish afterlife.
Sillen, who served as d.p. on such films as Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy,” has also specialized in turning the lives of relatively unknown outsider artist-musicians into iconic cinema: “Benjamin Smoke,” the 2000 docu about Atlanta’s titular trangressive rocker, and “Speed Racer” (1994), about paraplegic singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt. Similarly, “I Am Secretly an Important Man” takes a subject of whom little is widely known, but who generated a following fervent and devoted enough to ensure the recording and preservation of an inordinate amount of biographical and artistic material. Sillen clearly had access to all of it, and the details included in the film range from the domestic to the exotic.
Bernstein’s problems, which plagued him all his life, according to the docu, began with childhood polio, an illness that by its very nature was both isolating and, for Bernstein at least, stimulating. According to his brother, Jeff, Bernstein’s creativity manifested itself very early on, as did his strangeness, later blamed on schizophrenia. As a mere boy (“always the weird kid”), the Los Angeles-born Bernstein was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital,; later institutionalization didn’t much help.
As a young adult, his hands and arms covered with self-inflicted tattoos, he turned to drugs, porn films and writing, between bouts of instability. As one of Bernstein’s numerous girlfriends, ex-wives and friends/victims recalls, the poet could shift from seeming normality to murderous rage in the blink of an eye; his penchant for self-medication led to alcoholism, drug addiction and a life often led on the street.
But his writing, in the tradition of William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski and other poets of abuse, distinguished him during the grunge/Nirvana period in Seattle, where he was embraced by a nascent culture that clearly found something in his organic oddness they could embrace. In its celebration/examination of Bernstein’s contribution to Seattle culture, the docu doesn’t skirt the disturbing aspects of Bernstein’s life vis-a-vis his audience, but it does more or less write off any culpability that audience might have had in encouraging Bernstein’s craziness.
Still, “I Am Secretly an Important Man” succeeds at a most difficult task — not only making viewers interested in someone they may not have heard of, but encouraging an emotional investment in him as well. Sillen does quite lovely work with Bernstein’s readings of his poetry, finding in Seattle and other environs the right visual accents and illuminations to enhance the words.
Production values are mixed, relying on much found footage and questionable audio, but given the subject, a certain erratic quality seems apt.