Hard-Edge Everson: The Films of Kevin Jerome Everson
by Greg de Cuir Jr.
Listen to Kevin Jerome Everson speak and he mentions the word “craft” often—that and “form.” These are the twin poles of his work that can be measured in quantity and quality. Though he emphasizes the act of shaping material and the attitude governing that act, one cannot divorce his aesthetics from his ethics of representation. Everson is interested in unassuming people who not only work but who also do their jobs well—so well that their processes approach the automatic motions of an artist. The people he is primarily interested in are black Americans and others of African descent; the work is usually of a physical nature, that is, work with hands. Everson’s own creative work seems akin to what the art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway described as Hard-edge painting: economy of form, fullness of color, neatness of surface.
The craftsman typically produces something that can satisfy lay consumption. The craft itself is praiseworthy because of the path traveled in order to realize form—art is making this path malleable through imitation and repetition, which the sociologist Gabriel Tarde wrote were among the keys that open up the arcana of the universe. Everson’s cinema opens up the arcana of the everyday. If his focus is on the object and result of craft, the method of the work is a high priority as well. It is said that great teachers are pedagogues of method and not content. One can observe Everson, as a professor of art at the University of Virginia, instructing his students on how to shoot and how to cut—how to look, which precedes and conditions the politics of observation, interaction, and transformation.
There is a very thin line between a craftsman and an artist. The former is sometimes spoken of in condescending terms, at least within the domain of art criticism. The latter is often championed as something of a wizard. It would not be a stretch to say that the cinema of Everson is about dismantling this myth and the hierarchy that enables it. Better yet, his cinema is about elevating the work of the craftsman to the lofty plane of art. This makes him a populist filmmaker, dignifying the (creative) work of those who are not often celebrated in society and rather remain invisible to cultured eyes. The philosopher Vilém Flusser (with Louis Bec) wrote that we do not see the world itself but rather the reflection of sunlight off of objects, and as such the world can deceive us. Photography, therefore, and by extension the cinema, is a deception even before any visual impression passes through the iris of the camera. We must speak of an ethics of visual restoration. As Flusser argued, we have to penetrate behind appearances in order to free things from the veil of light. Everson is a revealer of forms and figures. Rendering the unseen visible should serve as a good definition of an artist and also as justification for the arcana of cinema.
As the novelist Ralph Ellison described, invisibility has racial overtones and sociopolitical determinants. The invisible man tends to be underserved, undervalued, and underpaid in society. Those who weave the spells that render certain segments invisible by way of their moral light (or right) often cloak themselves in a fog of secrecy as well. One does not have to treat with dignity what one cannot see. One cannot expect to maintain a position of privilege by acknowledging and empowering those upon whom that position is built. Anyway, it is hard to view those down below when sitting on high. So it remains the artist’s work to either bear witness to images of the disenfranchised for the public or to expose those who would manipulate and suppress—or both. Not all artists, however, are created equal in their ambitions and ideals. Some even perpetuate and propagate sleights of hand on order to reinforce the foundations of the thrones. The best artists are those who feel a certain responsibility to themselves and those around them. Beware of an artist who claims, “I am not a role model.”
The cinema was not originally thought of as an art form. It was a craft, a distraction. Those that created cinema in the early days—at least those within the Hollywood studio system— were like factory workers. Those working independently of the system had the potential to become artists because there was a certain level of personality infused in the final product. The postwar Cahiers du cinéma critics argued that even those operating within the system displayed the potential for personal artistic expression, but those working men were the rare few (who either exercised that potential or could somehow separate themselves from the masses—or who the Cahiers critics chose to elevate). For example, a director like Oscar Micheaux was not considered an artist, not even by today’s standards, when critics are slowly catching up with his pioneering significance in bringing about an independent (black) cinema. His films are too rough and unpolished, they say, though some highlight his consistently imperfect craft as evidence of artistic intention. After all, Micheaux made more than forty films, and it is not likely that one repeats the same “errors” so many times unless on purpose. A good craftsman certainly does not. Perhaps an artist does. As the painter and critic Walter Sickert wrote, “Art may be said to be the individual quality of failure, or the individual co-efficient of error of each highly skilled and cultivated craftsman in his effort to attain to the expression of form.”
Though the ways of the artist may be mysterious, the cinema of Kevin Jerome Everson is not. Rather than confuse, it clarifies. Sickert wrote that art is also produced mainly for lay consumption, and if it fails to be lucid it fails in its first function. Everson’s is a concrete cinema in both material and conception, the kind of cinema that lends itself to abstraction very well. He speaks of abstraction as an ideal to be reached rather than a starting point, as something that must be earned through hard work. As such, he submits his cinema along a path of attrition. It must walk the stations. Only then will it shape itself through the necessary passion, will it realize form. Everson’s is a hard-edged cinema, but not quite yet sharp-edged. When his films begin to cut back at the surrounding society, then many would be wise to duck. There are warning signs that his cinema is already moving in this direction. Consider the evocative title Sugarcoated Arsenic (co-directed with Claudrena Harold, 2013). Until now the pill has been easy to swallow because of its economy, its fullness, its neatness. Perhaps many have never understood the destabilizing side effects this pill can and will provoke. Arsenic may be hard edged and highly poisonous, but in compound form it can also be used to make glass, semiconductors, even medicine. It is an artisanal element and, in the right hands with the right aims, it can just as easily build rather than destroy.
Sugarcoated Arsenic resurrects the social critique of University of Virginia professor Vivian Gordon and her stance against American racial oppression and opportunism in the 1970s. White hegemonic power would seem to placate in the civil rights era, but instead it continually feeds poison to the downtrodden in a palatable (liberal) shell. The film’s point of departure was the discovery by co-director Claudrena Harold (a professor of history, also at the University of Virginia) of rare archival materials that narrated the university’s connections to cultural and political revolution at the time. Everson and Harold had only audio reels and newspapers to work with as primary sources while researching Gordon, so they proceeded to imitate the environment of black campus life at the University of Virginia in the 1970s through quasidocumentary images—as if Harold had found film reels instead. Here we see the fullness of color in Everson’s cinema, in the sense of African-American existence in all of its facets, from radical political action to a leisurely game of table football. Through the grainy, high-contrast, monochrome 16mm film, the entire spectrum of blackness is visible. This fullness, this volume, is the sum total of his cinema. Everson works mainly in nonfiction, though sometimes his documentary forays lead him to artifice. As mentioned, Sugarcoated Arsenic is a fabricated reconstruction, an elemental compound. The film looks like a seamless approximation of archival footage, but that is not the point. Everson does not intend to trick the viewer with a believable spectacle. He and Harold are more interested in paying homage, in crafting visible evidence that can speak across and to various generations.
A film like Three Quarters (2015) documents sleights of hand, documenting a fiction. In this film we view silent shots of magicians performing for the camera, one with coins and the other with a string. Everson preserves the continuity of the magicians’ performances through an absence of cutting, by holding the frame; ironically enough here, he never exposes the craft that goes into their work, and that is because he respects their talents. Cinema is already a form of magic, but that is not the thesis of the film. Everson’s is not a theoretical cinema. This may be one reason why he occasionally meets resistance when he presents his work at specialized venues. Enlightened audiences sometimes like to be ahead of the game, to be in on the magic. The surface value of Everson’s cinema requires work—work of a nonacademic kind—to absorb. One must unlearn the naive everyday glance as well as the omniscient deconstructive gaze and instead open oneself up to seeing what has been hiding, bent by the sun’s rays.
Three Quarters displays the economy of form that characterizes much of Everson’s work. Again shooting in black-and-white 16 mm, this time with no soundtrack, the few handheld shots simply record the magicians at an eye-level frontal angle. Camera movement is minimal. The form is so economical that it practically effaces itself. The titles appear in what has become his traditional plain text font, white, in lowercase letters. The film lasts just over four minutes, enough to observe a few simple pieces—no pièce de résistance. The magicians perform in what appears to be their living rooms or kitchens. The extraordinary merges with the everyday until they are in equilibrium. We can also speak of an economy in very literal terms here, as the monetary title of the film testifies. Everson’s is a low-budget cinema, an independent cinema—though independence is always a function of economics. But “three quarters” also refers to a measurement in nonfiduciary sums, in spatial relations—matters of pure form, mathematics. This is symbolized most directly in the string that is reduced and multiplied by one of the magicians. A play of abstract shapes is situated at the core of this film, like an anemic cinema or a constructivist sculpture.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Everson’s cinema is his subtle deployment of props that he crafts by hand to aid and abet his vision. This action is indebted to his background as a visual artist exhibiting pieces in gallery and museum settings. Everson creates various innocuous objects and mobilizes them as the camouflaged punctum of his films, allowing his subjects to interact with and make use of them. This is another nuanced form of imitation in his cinema. For example, he constructed manhole covers and crowbars to use in his film Fe26 (2014) while depicting the illegal work of iron scrappers. To the practical eye, it may seem that this is an insurance tactic to absolve his production of being an accessory to malfeasance, but there is something more complex, more elemental, at play. One gets the feeling that these prop placements are subversive actions, willfully rupturing the fabric of the nonfiction form from within – they are like land mines for the eye. These ordinary objects also reveal Everson the craftsman and they bring him closer to his subjects. Some filmmakers prefer to work with celluloid simply because they carry this impulse of craft within them, rather than kowtowing to some sort of aesthetic-ideological purity. Some filmmakers just need to touch their material, to enjoy a haptic working relationship. For some this is the very beauty of their medium and the potential engagements it offers. Everson’s cinema is hard edged because of this potentiality, this materiality.
The subversive nature of the Eversonian object also stands as a metaphor: the filmmaking process condensed into small material actions. Yet, this does not devolve Everson’s work into an ostentatious and self-reflexive cinema. The land mines do not blow up in our faces, because his is an art of humility. Again, we must read the surface of the images when watching his films, not between the frames. We must embed ourselves into the rhythms of the craftsmen. This can most easily be felt in his film Sound That (2014), which structures sonic form in very unorthodox ways. Employees of the Cleveland Water Department use tuning devices to listen carefully for underground ruptures in pipes. The viewer hears nothing of what transpires related to this professional action and must instead attune herself to a different frequency. That subtle frequency becomes apparent near the end of the film at the credit sequence, when we hear the soft fluctuations of natural sound pulsing in and out of phase. In mainstream industry circles this would normally be defined as room tone—even though the film is shot entirely in exteriors. Call it street tone. This frequency is audible only through high-quality speakers in a theatrical setting. In most cases it would be considered noise. Here, Everson makes abstract soundscapes from it, moving the viewer to a beat that they never knew existed.
Everson’s newest work is also his magnum opus. Park Lanes (2015) is an expansive eight-hour film that studies a factory workday and plays out in a simulacrum of real time. The factory is in the business of producing bowling alley equipment; the factory workers are highly skilled specialists that each contribute to the excellence of the larger apparatus. Theorists would normally classify this film within the observational mode of documentary expression. Everson’s camera is not intrusive, there are no fact-gathering interviews, and any dialogue spoken in the film is deemphasized, sometimes not even entirely audible. Park Lanes could have been a silent film, which means an expression of pure cinematic form. For some this is a most admirable goal. As Alfred Hitchcock noted, the greatness of directors in the silent era was measured in inverse relation to the amount of inter-titles they used. Perhaps this is the equation that divides the line between the craftsman and the artist in cinematic terms (at least in the classical era).
Park Lanes is a film about method, about rhythm. No great filmmaker lacks a strong command of rhythm, both within the image itself and in the juxtaposition of those images. Everson would typically be called a mise-en-scène director, unlike Hitchcock, who believed the essence of the cinematic was in cutting. But in Park Lanes he does not so much stage (in space) as snatch sections of actuality. The workers that he follows craft various pieces, some like sculptures, others like paintings, and others esoteric assemblages. All of these pieces are the peak of abstraction at the same time as they are the epitome of the applied. It is very difficult to understand how form follows function when looking at these parts being wrought, and Everson does not cater to a predictable documentary narrative that would track the distinct stages until he reveals the grand design and how each part composes the whole. At some points in the film we associate a familiar working face with a particular object, and sometimes we even recognize an object linked with its larger purpose down the line, but this does not always create a chain of significance. Everson makes chaos out of order, but it is a subdued chaos, an implosion.
A neatness of surface is evident in his patient and unobtrusive camerawork, uncluttered frames, and also the work stations of the factory employees. Objects are washed, polished, sanded, made to fit. The industrial process requires imitation and repetition to achieve standardization, which enables commercial exploitation. In Park Lanes it quickly becomes apparent that the workers must achieve an exacting physical mimicry in order to be successful, and Everson’s long takes allow room for a variety of cyclical exercises. The workers bring order to chaos. The surface is important in all of their tasks. They have an intimate knowledge of design. There is a grace in their movements, a performance even. Note the way the bodies of the spray painters duck and sway as they move around their pieces, like boxers stalking their prey. Also notice the patience and pedantry on display as ceiling-high shelves of miniature parts are scanned and logged for the corresponding fixture. Everything has its place in this factory, and waste is reduced to a minimum. Think of the automated cleaner that rolls back and forth along the bowling lanes, buffing the surface to a mirror-like sparkle. The camera follows this odd contraption as curiously as it does living bodies. Not economy of form here but perfection, a precisionism. Neatness is at a premium in Park Lanes, their product imbued with the capacity for attaining sublimity.
For all this talk of inanimate materials and formal structures, we should not deny the human qualities of Everson’s cinema. We should, however, resist pigeonholing his work into a schematic exploration of race and class. Take Park Lanes, for example. A fullness of color is evident from the start, highlighting the dynamic multiethnicity of the American working class but not belaboring it. Constructed forms step forward in this film, but not as commodities. Rather, they emerge as the masterworks they are, flawless in their assembly and modest in function. When these objects leave the camera’s field of view, they do become commodities—that is the same moment when Everson becomes uninterested in them, though not necessarily the moment when he closes himself off to politics. The industrial process as he depicts it does not preempt human hands, human intervention. A superior product must be born from the heat of skin, by a personality. Everson reclaims humanity and the importance of the individual in such an environment. Everyone has a specific role to play in Park Lanes. As Martin Luther King Jr said, we are tied together in a network of mutuality, a common fabric of destiny. The sum total may be greater than the parts, but there can be no totality without autonomous elements. The title Fe26 attests to this. Everson is drawn to the compounds, the alchemy of cinema and human relations.
This affinity is a larger concern with Quality Control (2011), as the title for another of his factory rhapsodies explains. The potential for personality and expression emerges even within the assembly line. The division of labor does not require the division of the human spirit. Spirit, the fullness of color, bursts forth in Park Lanes. We see it in the way the workers make coffee for each other in the morning, the way they argue about basketball on their lunch break, the way they break down the fourth wall and pull the director into their conversation with friendly teasing. It is tournament time in the basketball season, otherwise known as the “big dance,” which means the film must have been shot in the early spring. The factory is located in Virginia, in the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference country, hallowed ground for lovers of college basketball. The workers know that Everson teaches at the University of Virginia, which just so happens to have a highly-ranked basketball program. An affection for sports bubbles under the surface in many of Everson’s films. It is a subject he holds dear as a former player himself. If you want to converse with him on an advanced plane, do not start with Farocki (rest in peace)—instead, reference the protection scheme for a fullback, the inside-outside game of a forward, the rotation of a fastball. These are formal qualities of a different kind, though imbued with artistry all the same, writ on the bodies of human beings. Everson made a film titled The Release (2013) that is a slow-motion sequence of dancers evoking movement behind the line of scrimmage in American football. This became literalized in his film Tygers (2014) that offers black-and-white footage of a high school football team practicing formations and drills (the team is in Mansfield, Ohio, where Everson grew up playing sports). Race car drivers, rodeo riders, beauty pageants. Everson’s cinema is athletic, competitive, physical.
Imagine how many constructed objects Everson was able to slip into Park Lanes. There would seem to be no appreciable difference between the tools he makes and places for the workers to use and those that could already be found at the worksite. Maybe that is the point. It takes a trained eye to know the difference, an expert hand to feel the anomalies. Everson intervenes with objects similar to the way that Hitchcock intervened in his films with his own figure—the mark of the auteur, a playful wink at the audience but also a playful nod at his characters, a small confession of their nature as characters. The Eversonian object is a concrete reminder of the fluid border between reality and artifice.
The most subversive intervention in Everson’s cinema is the consistent placement of non-white faces within the frame. This is a very radical proposition for the world of avant-garde film and video, doubly so behind the camera. It confirms Everson along that venerable continuum of independent African-American artists using cinema as their medium, from Micheaux to William Greaves to Spike Lee—and I think it is fair to say that Everson is the most significant black film artist to emerge in this young century. The intervention is a tremor that fractures the hegemonic traditions of Western art, infused with the potential to become a flood of biblical proportions, as was described in Everson’s film The Island of Saint Matthews (2013). To say that we do not have enough of these destabilizing tendencies is an understatement. Curators and critics should take heed, as should assignment editors and festival directors, particularly media conglomerate owners and operators. The responsibility lies with you.
To ask if the wider audience is ready for more nonconventional visions of blackness is maybe an uncomfortable question for all parties involved. The answer matters little for Everson, who continues working at a fevered pace—so much that he predates his films for the subsequent year, like a new line of automobiles. The 2016 models will be ready soon. Catch him if you can. An upcoming project among many will be the fact-based story of a murderous black couple tearing their way through the American Midwest, scored entirely with dialogue that is derived from verses of popular black music. Call it hard-edged opera. Everson has crafted the knife that the couple uses to commit their crimes in his film. It is heavy, cold, but fits the hand flawlessly. Perhaps this knife will eventually tear a split between Everson’s constructive and destructive phases. For now it lies dormant at his workstation surrounded by external drives, computers, 16mm cameras, books, and other tools of the trade.
My gratitude to Miriam De Rosa and Kim Knowles for their deep insight and generous advice. A special thank you to Kevin Jerome Everson for taking me to see my first NCAA basketball game in a very long time.
Greg de Cuir Jr. is the selector/curator for Alternative Film/Video Belgrade. His writing has been published in Jump Cut, Art Margins, Festivalists, Belgrade Literary Journal, and other journals and anthologies. He has curated film and video programs for Los Angeles Filmforum, the ICA Artists’ Film Biennial in London, goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film in Wiesbaden, and other institutions. De Cuir lives and works in Belgrade (Serbia) as an independent curator, writer, and translator.
Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 3, Summer 2015