NYFF 2017: Kevin Jerome Everson’s Tonsler Park

Kevin Jerome Everson has a nine-minute short screening as part of Projections’ Program 1: Speculative Spaces at the New York Film Festival. In IFO, “which stands for ‘Identified Flying Object,’ African Americans look up at the skies and report alien sightings,” writes Ela Bittencourt for frieze. “Everson has used the austere, black-and-white documentary aesthetic numerous times before to comment on America’s racial schisms. In his memorable Ears, Eyes and Throat (2016), a woman’s loss of voice and her witnessing of a shooting create a subtle tension between silence and the need to speak up and confront violence in her community. In his recent feature, Tonsler Park (2017), which also plays in Projections this year, Everson points the camera at the fluctuating crowd inside a Virginia polling station. Everson’s films are examples of just how fiercely cinema’s plain vernacular can be rooted in politics.”

The focus in Tonsler Park is on “black male and female poll workers in Charlottesville, Va., on Nov. 8, 2016,” notes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Mr. Everson tests your patience with an opening that initially registers as a tediously obvious formalist gesture. Keep watching; it only looks simple. Because, as one leisurely held shot gives way to the next, Tonsler Park reveals itself beautifully and with incremental, unexpectedly moving force. Mr. Everson is asking you to look, really look, and he is asking you to think, including about documentary cinema’s history of representing black people as problems. And while the absence of the usual assists (text, voice-over) may seem frustrating, it also proves liberating as your mind focuses, wanders and refocuses on these black men and women doing their part for American democracy.”

“Watching the film now, we also remember Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally in August, its tumultuous aftermath and Trump’s astounding refusal to condemn the white supremacist violence,” writes Helen de Witt for Sight & Sound. “These world-shaking events seem a million miles from the Charlottesville of the film, in which ordinary people mill around the polling station amid the reassuring buzz of chatter as instructions are explained and questions answered. It is easy, and valuable, to see Tonsler Park as an observational documentary, and you certainly feel that you are seeing people going about their everyday lives—but as an artist Everson is as much interested in form and process as he is content. He draws together formalist concerns for duration, framing and materiality with a desire to represent everyday life in African-American working-class communities.”

“If Everson harbors a subtle irony, this white male liberal missed it entirely,” writes Tony Pipolo for Artforum. “What I grasped is a document, the directness and sincerity of which is grounded in every ten-minute take of the welcoming faces and earnest demeanors of the volunteers, as voters enter and leave the frame, momentarily blocking our view, in a well-coordinated flow. What we witness, in short, is a white supremacist’s nightmare—aka American democracy in action. Essential to the movie’s impact is that Everson does not belabor the ‘point.’ Tonsler Park is not just a forthright counterpoint to the deluge of violent images and condescending sermonizing offered by mainstream media. It’s an act of artistic and political clout that should run as a permanent installation on museum walls across the country in a continuous loop.”

“In a year when all norms and values in American politics seem to have collapsed, a film like Tonsler Park feels particularly valuable,” adds Philip Concannon.

While we’re here, let’s add a couple of notes on the eight-minute short Everson had in the Wavelengths program in Toronto last month, Brown and Clear. “This is a very simple piece, taking place inside a bar whose bottles are being refilled with liquor,” writes Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov. “The first shot has the bottles in medium-close-up, extending on a diagonal from left to right reaching back into the frame: as each bottle is filled and moved slightly forward, the focus resets ever-so-slightly, a way of repeatedly redefining space within a fixed frame, drawing your eye to very slight differences during the adjustment. . . . This super-close-up approach is tried from a number of different literal angles, proving an artist thinking in a very particular visual way can generate spectacle from even the most minimal set of resources.”

Brown and Clear captures the light and texture not only of the liquor bottles themselves, although Everson does a beautiful job of this,” writes Michael Sicinski in the Notebook. “His use of shallow focus recalls Leighton Pierce’s best work. But more than this, Everson captures the unique ambiance of a neighborhood pub—dark, cozy, burnished wood and gold fixtures. Brown and Clear manages to zero in on one small part of the labor process involved in the running of a bar, and through his close attention that task becomes a metonym for the space itself and the community it serves.”

Update, 10/16: “Everson's been making charming experimental documentaries of this sort for over a decade and he never looks like he's breaking a sweat,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com. “His charming and vivacious images just seem to spill out of his camera.”

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