Steven Jesse Bernstein only lived 40 years, but to judge from the new documentary about him, “I Am Secretly an Important Man,” which opens on Dec. 15, his four decades were a whirlwind that encompassed enough writing, performing, sex, drugs and alcohol for a small army, and ended with an inexplicable but unsurprising suicide. That makes it all the more surprising that his advice to other poets, performance artists, musicians and, most of all, to himself was six simple words: “Just go and do your job.”
Throughout Pete Sillen’s new documentary, Bernstein (whose real middle name was Jay) talks about writing as “my job,” and he applied himself to his poetry, songs and other texts with a driven fury befitting a man who was pursued by demons neurological, psychological, historical and chemical. When a local news anchor asks him to characterize his poetry in a hilariously wrong-headed interview, Bernstein blandly replies, “It’s dark.”
Bernstein was born in Los Angeles in 1950, the second of two sons of a young Jewish couple. His father was mostly absent, leaving his wife to raise the boys with the help of her recently widowed father, a refugee from the pogroms of Ukraine. As Sillen gradually reveals, Steven had anything but a ’50s-sitcom childhood, contracting polio at 5 and gradually becoming a rebellious, disturbed boy. By the time he was 14, his mother had him committed to the state mental hospital at Camarillo.
As the film makes clear, Bernstein had already become immersed in a West Coast version of the Jewish bohemian world, hanging out with painters, poets and jazz musicians; the highlight of his stay at Camarillo was meeting fellow patient and jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. He would escape from Camarillo and begin a vagabond life that never really stopped. As his brother Jeff says, “After that, he’s not a kid anymore.”
What he was from that point on was a bipolar but brilliant all-purpose arts dervish, self-medicating with heroin and psychedelics as a teen, booze as a young adult. But through all his transient madnesses, Bernstein was an original voice in the way that outsider artists frequently are. He finally settled, more or less, in Seattle, where, although his musical allegiances owed more to the beats and post-bop jazz, he became a strange father figure to the underground rock scene that would become known across the country as “grunge.”
At the film’s outset, we see Bernstein in a close-up profile, reading from a — possibly — autobiographical piece in which he laments his “ugly” face, “curly hair, augh!” pasty complexion and “blob” of a nose. It’s an astute choice of opening, centering the film immediately on Bernstein’s voice and his ambivalent relationship with his body. Although he seems not to have had much connection to Judaism after leaving home, he fits in quite snugly with other Jewish writers — Kafka, Philip Roth, Woody Allen come to mind — as a mind and voice obsessed with the problems of embodiment. His work frequently reads like a case history out of Sander Gilman’s brilliant “The Jew’s Body,” and his relationship with his corporeal self is a deeply ambivalent one.
For the most part, Sillen conveys these themes with a quietly unobtrusive juxtaposition of archival footage — Bernstein loved to be videotaped, so there’s plenty to draw on — and interviews with friends, colleagues, and Bernstein’s three wives, several girlfriends and two sons. The presence of family makes the film bear an odd resemblance to Terry Zwigoff’s brilliant “Crumb,” the documentary about artist R. Crumb and his family. But Sillen seems to be just as concerned with creating a sense of Seattle as a peculiarly ethereal place and a backdrop for Bernstein’s contrastingly concrete works and troubles.
The filmmaker wants us to share his obvious affection for Bernstein’s work, which swings wildly between unbridled brilliance and mere manic energy. The result is a brisk and frequently compelling portrait of yet another Jewish outsider, a lot farther outside than most. n
“I Am Secretly a Very Important Man,” directed by Peter Sillen, opens on Wednesday, Dec. 15 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.). For information, call (212) 924-7771 or go to www.ifccenter.com.