Poetry News

New docs feature a poetic journalist and a grunge poet laureate

By Harriet Staff

GreenCine highlights two new writer/performer documentaries in a rather unfortunately titled but still worth reading post, Dead Poets Society. Spalding Gray was of course known for a great deal more than his suicide and the hours of footage that Steven Soderbergh has pieced together to examine his life in And Everything is Going Fine certainly would have been worth revisiting, as Gray himself often did, even if he were still living.

As such, the film deals only with Gray's life as it was recorded, which means that most of its 87 minutes consist of the artist talking about himself, since that's what he did, not just for a living but as a way to live, certainly as a form of therapy: a first-person talking cure as memoir as existential canvas. It wasn't all about him, of course. "I am not Samuel Beckett," Gray insisted. "I am not a navel gazer. Beckett's a great writer but I'm not a minimalist."

Much less well known, for his life or his death, is the subject of the second documentary, I am Secretly an Important Man, Seattle "grunge poet laureate" Steven "Jesse" Bernstein. Director Pete Sillen relies on the poet's self-documentation through video and writings, as well as help from his many collaborators to investigate a "subculture hero" who counted William S. Burroughs, Oliver Stone, and Kurt Cobain among his fans and at one point feared he was being held captive by The Holy Modal Rounders while on tour as their opening act.

The film delivers only enough of Bernstein performing—an electrifying reading of his "hit single," Come Out Tonight, shutting down the hecklers as he opens for the noise band Big Black, audio excerpts from his Sub-Pop album Prison—to define his approach and arouse curiosity. Which is fine. Bernstein's actual life, lived on the edge but with a sometimes beatific sweetness about it, may have been the greater work of art. People approach Bernstein as if he was some sort of extraterrestrial, his older brother reflects, but "he was really Huckleberry Finn with a little extra chili pepper."