Last fall, Second Run released a 2-disc blu-ray set featuring 8.6 hours of work by American artist-filmmaker Kevin Jerome Everson, titled ‘How You Live Your Story’. ‘Artist-filmmaker’ works better here as a descriptor than in its usual capacity. That is to say, while the term often refers to filmmakers working with just about anything other than conventional narrative, Everson is, more specifically, someone from the fine arts who has chosen moving images as his medium.
It’s rare that any filmmaker receives a career-spanning home video retrospective of this type, let alone one (still) working at such a small scale and largely within the short form. Furthermore, the titles on these discs were personally selected by Everson – an even rarer consideration for a filmmaker’s preferences in home video presentation.
The set collects work from 2005 up through a pair of 2020 films, at least one of which (Brown Thrasher) doesn’t seem to have been screened prior. Across this span of time, formats (analog and digital alike), and styles (some more static, others more dynamic), the films always take humans as their subjects, with the sole exception of Polly One (2018) – and outside the scope of these discs, Polly Two and Condor, all three of them eclipse films.
The day after ‘How You Live Your Story’ arrived in my mailbox, the Slow Film Festival held a live stream of recovery (2020), The Barrel (2019), American Motor Company (2010) and Condor (2019), followed by a Q&A with Everson. When asked in the Q&A if the multiple 360-degree rotations around a small liquor shop in The Barrel were in reference to Chantal Akerman’s La Chambre, Everson admitted he’s not really a cinema person, and was not familiar with the film. As pointed out in other questions asked that evening, there is an element of the Warholian and Benning-esque in this work, but Everson is far less interested in formal vigor. Where James Benning insists on absolute stillness, Everson’s longest takes are typically handheld, his camera always bobbing along with the natural flow of standing, and developing fatigue.
Though shooting almost exclusively handheld, KJE’s camera is by no means playful. Instead, it careens around its subjects, in an effort to functionally engage with their action. When Rams 23 Blue Bears 21 (2017) observes the crowd exiting a game, the camera stays in place, despite not being mounted on a tripod, as it was in the film’s ‘original’ – Rams 23 is a self-conscious riff on the Lumiere brothers film Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) – which Everson has also directly re-made, as Workers Leaving the Job Site (2013). The camera consistently moves to reflect the needs of a human body: it cannot remain perfectly still. Thus we are constantly reminded of Everson behind the camera, framing our field of view on a person-to-person level rather than the relentless gaze of a cold machine. Everson’s repeated (though not exclusive) use of celluloid speaks to a similar interest; even when filming the mundane in real time, the material itself is as alive as its subjects. Only in Brown Thraser does the camera’s movement come into play as a major formal element, ‘thrashing’ vertically to emulate the bird’s name, as we observe the otherwise still birdwatchers.
Recently, I watched John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind (2007), which reflects upon the ways that contemporary capital works to render manual labor invisible, and demoralize those who perform it through low pay and treating them as less intelligent. Everson’s filmography is one that also works to set the record straight on this topic. One might say that ‘making the work visible’ is his modus operandi, and this blu-ray set does something similar by making Everson’s work accessible.
This led me to think about the ‘exposure’ and ‘increase in status’ that came to Sky Hopinka following the recent addition of his films to the Criterion Channel streaming service, despite the fact that he made his films free to watch on Vimeo at the onset of the covid crisis, months earlier. That is to say, for a viewer who was already watching the films on Hopinka’s Vimeo page, not much has changed in terms of the films’ accessibility, yet their visibility increases drastically for viewers who do not make a hobby of actively seeking out truly independent filmmakers.
More or less a core thesis of Everson’s work is touched upon early in Erie (2010), cited as Mainstream America’s cries against United Auto Workers, “You people should not be making that kinda money, you do not have the education to make that kinda money, how did you get that job?” The ‘point’, as it were, lies in the fact that the idea of a ‘working class’ in America has changed dramatically over the preceding decades. Where manual labor was once the epitome of classically honest work, now everyone only ever aspires to somehow grift their way to the top.
Mostly this set is a collection of blue-collar Black men and women going about their work, often it’s what they do for a living, but in some cases it’s also their hobbies or passions – fencing, piano playing and singing in Erie, fishing in Old Cat (2009), rodeo-ing in Ten Five in the Grass (2012). Predominantly shot on 16mm film, some are bursting with color, though a fair few are in black and white.
Every film lends another small piece of context to an ever-growing body of work, producing an intimate tapestry of Black American life. On their own, few individual pieces are exceptionally striking, yet the impression on the whole is a long-lasting one. The passage of time, sure – but more importantly, the way we move while time passes around us.
BLU-RAY 2-DISC SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS:
• Presented from new digital transfers from original materials, approved by the director.
• 2-disc Blu-ray incorporating 4 features and 17 short films.
• An ‘image booklet’ of photographs chosen by the artist.
• All-region (A/B/C) Blu-rays.