In 2015, video artist Roger Beebe screened Kevin Jerome Everson’s Ninety Three (2008) at my university as part of a guest lecture. The film, at only two minutes, is the portrait of an elderly man blowing out ninety-three candles on a birthday cake. Filmed on 16mm in deep monochrome, the experience is a slow-moving rhythm of inaudible diastolic and systolic beats. Becoming shrouded in darkness, the candles disappear, first in large groups, and finally as single beacons of light - ultimately providing an intimate and sensorial experience.
Since then, Everson has made a plethora of visceral shorts and long form works – including the eight-hour “shift film” Park Lanes – each with his signature visual and political style. His most recent, Tonsler Park, consists of eight, ten-minute 16mm reel portraits of election officials at the titular Charlottesville location on November 8th, 2016. Far more than just a portrait film, and originally conceived as a thirteen-hour shift film in the same vein as Park Lanes, Tonsler Park, in its current form is still every bit as powerful.
A documentary that challenges the nature of spectatorship, as the viewer’s engagement depends not on their relation to the image, but rather their experience with it. In addition, Tonsler Park recalls Heidegger’s stance on profound boredom, as, “drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference.”
When confronted with this nothingness, the viewer can engage with the text in a wholly existential sense. Meaning that, no longer is one’s self considered in any sense, allowing for a complete submission to the projected imagery. With the portraits ranging from single figures checking people in, to a duo at a desk, and finally a greeter at the entrance. While this may not seem like a remarkable feat, it is the unwavering focus of the camera as well as its subjects that provides an engrossing experience.
More in tune with fine arts such as painting and sculpting, each reel of Tonsler Park is formally concerned with the nature of materiality. Whether it is of the election official, or the overlapping of bodies and the new forms created as a result, Everson is creating images that oppose conventional filmmaking. For instance, at times the official disappears as a swarm of sweaters and figures line-up in front of the camera, to the point where a discernible figure is entirely remiss, producing a disorienting effect that perhaps speaks to the suffocating nature of democracy and politics.
To elaborate on the relation between form and politics, consider the asynchronous sound of the film. What the audience views is unheard, and what the audience hears is unseen. The sonic/visual tension produced exists as conflict that speaks to the nature of a bipartisan country, two powerful in eternal battle for dominance.
In further consideration, Tonsler Park is a film that forces the viewer to existentially dwell on the frame and the facets of it. For instance, the role of the black civil servant in an election process that has historically suppressed and challenged their very status in the country. Regardless of the now infamous election results, Tonsler Park’s thematic power remains the same. A visual elegy of the sanctity of the Presidency and the democratic process, but also a film of active resistance as the historically disenfranchised remain ever present.
It makes sense then that Tonsler Park begins with the unfurling of an American flag, only to end with it being folded up; the concluding image evoking a certain laying to rest of various themes (with democracy as a whole being a bit of a stretch, but shades of which are felt). A documentary certainly not for everyone, but for those interested in experimental documentary filmmaking or familiar with Everson – and other alternative artists – Tonsler Park is one of the year’s most profoundly challenging and thought provoking works.