By the time Steven "Jesse" Bernstein arrived in Seattle in 1967, he'd survived childhood polio, been in and out of mental institutions, run away from home, caught a ride on Ken Kesey's magic bus to San Francisco, appeared in porno films, and started doing heroin. Poetry was the next obvious move. A stripper published Bernstein's first chapbook in 1978; he recorded a poem for the scene-cementing Sub Pop 200 compilation in 1988; by 1991, he was dead by his own hand.
Bernstein left behind a body of written and recorded work that has become a cult canon; fortunately for this documentary—showing Wednesday, October 6, as part of the Local Sightings Film Festival—he also left behind some remarkable film and video footage. There's footage of Bernstein reading from behind a storefront window downtown to bewildered and amused passersby, of him performing with a live mouse squirming around in his mouth (with the poem written from the mouse's perspective, about how the creature is making the man talk), of him being interviewed by a blond wig on KIRO who assures him, "I don't think your voice sounds sandpapery." There's footage of Bernstein opening for abrasive rock band Big Black and shouting down a heckler: "This IS music!" There's a quiet shot of his tattooed hands at work on an electric typewriter.
Director Peter Sillen (best known for his posthumous documentary about art rocker Benjamin Smoke of Athens, Georgia) cuts seamlessly from archival material—color- saturated footage of Bernstein ambling down his fire escape—to grayer, present-day Seattle, as Bernstein recites poetry over Steve Fisk's jazz loops or those who knew the poet speak about him in voice-over. Interviews with contemporaries such as Bruce Pavitt of Sub Pop, Slim Moon of Kill Rock Stars, as well as Bernstein's family and friends, range from the requisite mythmaking (he was the "godfather of grunge," "a real outsider") to stranger moments: an ex talking about the seizures he suffered says the doctors thought Bernstein's brain was too big for his skull, his two grown sons playing a marimba together. But the film is at its best when Bernstein is on-screen or at least audible, his snarling, nasal monotone and acerbic verse as naggingly charismatic as it must have been then.
In the end, the videographer friend who explains that Bernstein would have liked to have "every minute of his life on videotape" discovers the poet's body, three self-inflicted stab wounds to the throat, bleeding through a hole in a trailer's floor into a stream that flows to the ocean. He cues up an old videocassette, and Bernstein hops a train under an overpass and waves good-bye.