“I mean, he was a little bit scary, you know? We were college kids… I mean, to a degree there was just a sense of, like, play there, but Jesse was, like, the real thing.” So says Charles Peterson, Sub Pop-affiliated photographer and documentarian of at least a portion of the life of Stephen J. “Jesse” Bernstein.
It’s easy to see why Peterson and his fellow flannel-flyers were intimidated by Bernstein: covered with crude, homemade tattoos in a time before they were commonplace, with a ragged, sideways manner of speech that lent a harder edge to his already-pronounced taciturnity, Bernstein spent much of his life on the fringes of Seattle, living off of hot plates in cheap hotels or shacking up with girlfriends and (occasionally) wives or mothers of his children before committing suicide in 1991 at the age of 40.
Bernstein was a self-styled outsider figure, a poet-musician-filmmaker-performance artist and fixture of the Seattle music and art scenes of the 80’s and early 90’s. He seems to have been especially well-photographed during his lifetime; several of his friends and colleagues were only too willing to turn the camcorder or Super 8 on his doings, and he was only too eager to be filmed. Beyond the home movies, there is also extant footage of Bernstein (among other things) playing warm-up act for William S. Burroughs, reciting poetry while cradling a live mouse in his mouth, and discussing the finer points of life with a game Seattle news affiliate.
This footage of Bernstein makes for the most intriguing viewing in I Am Secretly An Important Man, a documentary about his life from director Pete Sillen. Bernstein was clearly a charismatic figure, and many of his contemporaries interviewed in the film still seem in awe of his relatively brief life. For all his magnetism, however, Bernstein remains largely inscrutable. Sillen is certainly more than willing to delve into the nitty-gritty, sparing few uncomfortable details of Bernstein’s fractured upbringing, his drug-fueled journeys during the late 60’s, or his messy adult life. But something about Bernstein still seems to elude Sillen’s grasp, and it feels as though there are whole pieces of Bernstein’s personality that are never uncovered, warts-and-all though the film might be.
Which is fine: it is not necessarily the duty of a documentary to expose every facet of its subject’s personality. Sillen ultimately sees Bernstein through the lens of his survivors, and the tone of the film is every bit as melancholy and disillusioned as many of its interviewees. The mournful, downbeat tone is, of course, appropriate for the subject matter, and it lends a dense, elegiac weight to Bernstein’s work as it is presented in the film.
Still, I Am Secretly An Important Man never draws the viewer in the way it should, and at times its somber mood turns ponderous and dreary. The end of the film arrives abruptly, and if it seems silly to grouse that a film about a suicide leaves the audience feeling abandoned and without closure, it is only because Bernstein’s story does not seem to have been fully told. Then again, his experiences are as deeply engaging as his poetry, and Sillen is a smart enough director to let the man’s life and work speak for themselves.