About 20 minutes into I Am Secretly an Important Man, a documentary about Seattle bottom-feeder performance icon Steven Jesse Bernstein, the film’s hitherto flickering cadence of talking heads and vintage snapshots stops cold for a lengthy recital. In what appears to be poorly de-interlaced VHS footage, the curly haired, egghead glasses-wearing Bernstein spews forth the entirety of “Come Out Tonight,” his brief but influential spoken-word ode to 1950s Americana; the off-screen audience can only manage a few uncomfortable titters at the thought of Jackie O. bearing JFK-gifted oranges, or Marilyn Monroe fluttering by, shaped like the author’s ass. His voice is grainy, adenoidal, and marked with saggy, elongated vowels, like an aural child of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. And despite the visual inertness of the video (it’s captured from a single, downward-peering angle) and the groping imagery of the poem itself, the unmotivated repugnance that drives Bernstein’s delivery implies an inimical sort of brilliance.
Director Peter Sillen punctuates his first act with this affecting archival material, and it’s the best evidence he has for how Bernstein rose to prominence during Seattle’s grunge movement. (Unsurprisingly, “Come Out Tonight” was among the works that Bernstein performed regularly while on tour with Nirvana and Soundgarden; eventually crowds began chanting out its hateful staccato along with him.) There are no interviews with key genre magnates, aside from some seemingly shell-shocked in-the-studio testimony from Sub Pop producers Steve Fisk and Bruce Pavitt, and nostalgic remembrances from grizzled club owner Larry Reid. Instead, Sillen gushingly sidesteps into Bernstein’s cultural significance by examining his tortured personal life, particularly through the prism of his revolving door of girlfriends; the artist’s relevance to the aggressive disenchantment of grunge and post-punk is gleaned from his lifelong struggles with mental illness, drug addiction, and social anxiety.
Bernstein’s lovers provide some harrowing context; the poet married one girl simply because he “[didn’t] want to leave” her, a sentiment that feels more like a desperate prayer for stability than a romantic pledge. Likewise, a friend prosaically recounts an evening he spent cowering before a maniacal, blade-brandishing Bernstein that seemed completely unlike his pithy if dazed day-to-day persona. (One confidant offers the possibility that he may have suffered from multiple personalities; at the very least, his experiences as a teen patient at southern California’s Camarillo mental hospital and subsequent battles with narcotics hint at a cracked neurology behind his relentless, desultory text.) But Sillen generally avoids juxtaposing these anecdotes with excerpts from seminal Bernstein works—very occasionally we hear a paragraph or two while the film shuttles through black-and-white cityscapes—so that we can’t help but feel as though we’re only hearing half the story.
Despite his weirdly detached perspective of the arts (he often claimed that he was merely “doing his job” while writing), Bernstein developed a lively style that blended the laconic, first-person diarizing of Frank O’Hara with the wild, oleaginous scum-dreams of Charles Bukowski; his best pieces seem at once like subjective observations and paranoid, lysergic havering. So it’s somewhat understandable that Sillen can’t quite commit to coherently grafting this flared angst onto his biographical portrait, even if we never hear from critics or literary appreciators that might gladly sift through Bernstein’s oeuvre for stray bits of autobiography. But aside from the grittily transcendent reading of “Come Out Tonight,” I Am Secretly an Important Man doesn’t make much of a case for its subject’s scribblings, and some of the man’s most seemingly defining personal events are inexplicably rushed through. (Perhaps afraid of having his subject upstaged, Sillen covers Bernstein’s longtime friendship with William S. Burroughs in five minutes; we hear tantalizing rumors of the poet starring in porn flicks, but we’re not even shown so much as a tattered VHS box.) When the film abruptly halts with Bernstein’s death-by-self-stabbing, we’re confident that we comprehend the events that led to his despair; getting acquainted with what he left behind, however, feels like an implicit homework assignment.