Between Beatniks and Hipsters

At the Local Sightings Film Festival, a Northwest poet returns from the grave.

The star of this year's Local Sightings Film Festival has been dead for almost two decades. Drawing from the greater Pacific Northwest, the fest has generally emphasized new work since its founding in 1998. This year, however, the specter of the past makes Local Sightings better than usual—less twee and mumblecore, more history and sincerity. The standout new documentary I Am Secretly an Important Man celebrates the life of Steven Jesse Bernstein (1950–1991), the local poet who took his own life just as he was becoming famous thanks to the grunge movement. (Yes, Kurt was a fan.) Director Peter Sillen has profiled other outsider artists (including Vic Chesnutt), and he brings considerable empathy to Bernstein's oddball life—without seeking to explain it or fill in all the gaps. The archival footage is terrific, beginning with an awkward-beyond-words TV interview with Susan Hutchison, occasioned by Seattle Weekly readers' voting him best poet for our 1989 Best of Seattle® issue. "What generally are the themes of your poetry?" she asks politely beneath high, immobile feathered bangs. "Life as it seems to me. It's dark. I'm considered a very dark poet," says Bernstein, bound in a vest and tie, looking far more meek and uncertain than you'd expect of a guy accustomed to facing down hostile rock fans impatient for the concert to begin. In fact, Sillen locates the precise instant when Bernstein did just that, dismissing a heckler with a curt, "This is music, asshole," before a 1987 Big Black show in Georgetown. (Yes, Kurt was there.) Two poetry collections, a Sub Pop album, and an EMP exhibit—curated by Larry Reid—eventually followed Bernstein's death, and the New York–based Sillen has the luxury of picking through material compiled by others. But he also goes back to explore Bernstein's L.A. childhood in a supportive Jewish household, polio, mental illness, and the substance abuse that plagued his Seattle years (from the late '60s onward). Wisely or not, Bernstein worshipped William S. Burroughs, and he even opened a 1988 show for him at the Moore (where I Am Secretly an Important Man will screen at 8 p.m. Wed., Oct. 6; it then returns to Northwest Film Forum for a week beginning Oct. 22). His contradictions, like Burroughs', remain unresolved. Whether he's a grunge footnote, beatnik wannabe, or beautiful, belated loser, the film allows you to decide. Another token of Seattle's forgotten '80s bohemia is the hour-long romance Darkness Rising (7 p.m. Mon.) the product of director Bill Swenson and a short-lived arts collective, Neoteric Productions, during that decade. In the 1986 film, shot on grainy Super-8, a janitor/poet falls for a dancer/call girl with inconclusive results. Long passages of poetry and urban montage are set to a synth-heavy '80s score that may cause snickering, but the underlying vibe is more Bukowski than Duran Duran. If the poet is a fuckup, he gradually realizes his dream girl is more messed up than he. Long conversational takes and naturalistic dialogue—the street noise seeping in—recall Cassavetes, and the would-be lovers' weekend getaway to an Olympic Peninsula beach is charmingly sparse. Without a radio or iPod for entertainment, they sing together in the car. Instead of mumbling hipsters shot in high-def, these two wander through shadows and sun flares, speaking forthrightly about what they want (or reject). The poet declares, "We are two strange." Both of them are moody outsiders to the new yuppie prosperity. Darkness Rising is a reminder that there was an '80s indie cinema before that term existed, before sex, lies and videotape and Miramax. Wedged between the hippies and the hipsters, a few local filmmakers participated in the same arts scene where Bernstein growled out his poetry. In that mossy tradition, two other small, worthwhile titles are Olympia director Zach Weintraub's slacker road-trip movie Bummer Summer (7 p.m. Fri.) and Christian Palmer's antic, agitated William Never Married (7 p.m. Sat.), about a sarcastic young drunk searching for bottom. (Cinematographer Ryan K. Adams deserves special mention for bringing a fresh eye to Seattle locations.) Friday's opening-night party, at 9 p.m., also celebrates the 15th birthday of NWFF, today the preeminent steward of our local film scene.

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