"I don't make films for the audience, I make them for the subjects, and I try to position those subjects and the camera so that there's a element of generosity between the two."
Ohio-born, Virginia-based Kevin Jerome Everson is one of America's most prolific and unpredictable filmmakers. Over a span of fifteen years and upward of 100 films, Everson has worked at a near tireless pace, framing largely anonymous images of working-class African Americans through an impressionistic aesthetic palette that is equally informed by street portraiture and observational nonfiction. From his early work with found footage to the vividly rendered suburban and inner-city social vignettes, Everson—who's currently a professor at the University of Virginia—has continued to move nimbly between academia and the avant-garde.
In typically industrious fashion, he has this year brought new and recent work to the Rotterdam and Courtisane film festivals, New York's Whitney Biennial, and the film program at Knoxville's Big Ears Festival, where a selection of shorts were shown alongside a new installation that cast four otherwise unrelated films in something like a study of twentieth-century American consciousness, linking both industrial evolution with corporeal decline, and traces of early cinema with unknown reaches of a medium in flux. Shortly after Big Ears, I spoke with Everson about these wide-ranging programs, his ever-restless practice, and the nuances of the artist-audience relationship.
Jordan Cronk I get the impression when watching your work, particularly as an entire program, that you're something like a filmmaker in the truest sense of the term. And by that I mean that the actual process of making films is where you derive your greatest satisfaction—which might explain why you've made so many. Can you speak about your films as acts of creation versus works to be exhibited to an audience?
Kevin Jerome Everson I come to film from the arts—from photography, sculpture, painting, and printmaking. Especially with photography, you have to make a body of work, you know? And I feel that in film, too. I can't just make one. I have to make these other components to see if my formal qualities are working or being exercised to the fullest. And if not, then I can adjust next time. I was recently reading Darby English's book, 1971: A Year in the Life of Color, about these black abstract painters in the late '60s and early '70s, and I realized I approach film like abstract art in some weird way—like maybe they don't need an audience? Like, I'm just making things. (laughter) They're just so self-referential.
One strategy is that I've been trying to have the people on screen be smarter than the audience—in the sense that the subjects don't need them. A lot of my professors in undergraduate school came out of the University of Iowa's art program in the early '70s. And because of that, I feel my work has to present itself as material, process, and procedure. So the act of making—the camera, film stock, even time or whatever else goes into it—is all part of the film's content.
JC Do you see some of the labor depicted in your films as a metaphor for the filmmaking process itself?
KJE I'm trying to present it as an art object. To go back to the audience thing again, since I've been thinking about it so much lately: I don't make films for the audience, I make them for the subjects, and I try to position those subjects and the camera so that there's an element of generosity between the two.
JC At what point in the process do you know you're making one of your more miniature portrait films versus something longer, like the eight-hour Park Lanes (2015)?
KJE Well, I think of Park Lanes the same way I do a six-minute film. In fact, it probably took less time to edit , because I had a structure: clock-in, morning break, lunch, afternoon break, and clock-out. So I just filmed it. I remember when I cut Fe26 (2014) it took forever! (laughter) With that film and Sound That (2013), I had broken my foot and wasn't able to look through the viewfinder. So Lindsay Arturo, Elizabeth Webb, and Lydia Hicks, they shot them and did a fantastic job. But then I realized how much of the editing process comes through the viewfinder, which might be why those films took forever to cut.
JC Are you shooting equivalent amounts of time with most of your subjects, regardless of the film's eventual length?
KJE No. For example, Park Lanes had a template. It had to be 480 minutes. I shot a film about serial killers that I thought was going to be feature-length, and it ended up being twenty minutes. So in most cases time comes later, unless I'm doing single takes, like in Tonsler Park (2017), where I know I'm shooting ten-minute rolls. But in general, I have no idea about length until I'm shooting.
JC You've mentioned that in general your relationship with your subjects is pretty professional. You're not living with and becoming friends with them. You respect their work, and they respect yours—you go in, present the idea, shoot, and get out. Can you expand on this approach?
KJE I come to film from street photography, where I shoot strangers and I'm there for just a hundred-and-twenty-fifth of a second. But with film I'm there for a longer duration, so I have to say something. (laughter) I tell them I'm in the art-making business: "I like what you do, and I'm gonna frame you up," that kind of thing. Sometimes I give them my information, sometimes I don't. Depends on the film—sometimes these people are criminals, you know? Or I get their information and send them a DVD or a link later.
For Ten Five in the Grass (2012), I was shooting these black cowboys, spending time with this family in Lafayette. I was calling them up, going to the rodeos. I liked them—they were beautiful and talented. When I was back home and editing, I heard on the news that there was a flood in Lafayette. Even though I knew they were on higher ground, I still wanted to check on them. So I called, and they didn't know who I was! I was like, "Yeah, it's me, Kevin, the filmmaker." (laughter) So, that proved I'm not the most important thing that happened to them that day! I realized then that I have little effect on my subjects' lives. I sent that same family a DVD of the film, and I think the wife watched it and the husband didn't. They looked handsome in it, and that's all they cared about. I know some filmmakers like to befriend their subjects. But you have to realize you're not that important to them. You are taking their likeness and representation somewhere else, but if you're true to the subject matter and respectful, there's not much harm in it. For me at least—I'm way past that.
JC How does this differ with a subject like Sanford and Son's Nathan Jitahadi Taylor, from Auditioning for Nathaniel (2016)—a subject you have, if not a direct relationship with, then at least a nostalgic connection toward?
KJE It wasn't much different, actually. I just had to contact him. Now I'm working on a film about a boxer from my hometown, and I've been in contact with him since January. So in this case our relationship is ongoing. I need the materiality, and the cast is part of that.
JC How do you reconcile your early, found-footage work with more recent projects on similar subjects, such as your first boxing film, Ring? Your films tend to look and operate in similar ways whether they're comprised of new or found footage.
KJE For Ring, the footage was like an audition tape—like, this boxer looks cooler than this boxer, this gesture looks cooler than this one, so I'll slow it down. I was looking for images that look more like art objects. That was really the only process with those films, and I knew I wouldn't do that forever, because I'm a shooter. So for a while I was making films that looked like found footage. There's a nostalgia thing there, for what they're wearing or their hairstyles, or for the film stock itself. There was a film I did years ago that was both found and shot footage called The Golden Age of Fish (2008), and I just can't look at it now. But it provided me with a template, as an example of something that didn't work. I thought the aggressive cut from found footage to something I shot myself would be like an abstract brushstroke. But I realized time, or duration, was a better way.
JC People have said your films feel very "casual," or give off that air. But at the same time, if you watch a film like Ears, Nose and Throat (2016), it's obvious that there's a concrete structure. It's casual but carefully constructed.
KJE I'm all about compression. For that film, there's seemingly no rhyme or reason to being in that doctor's office, and the details come out later. The camera doesn't move much, but the camera is evidence of presence. You know I'm there. It was kind of scripted, but then the doctor started examining her and fiction started to become documentary, as they say.
JC You've mentioned that you like to use reality as a formal device, and also how in Fe26 you utilized props and things to heighten that reality. Can you talk about the fictional elements in your work?
KJE For fiction, it's easier to control—I have a direction I know the film should go in. But I've got films like Stone (2013), where I just showed up and cats were doing what they're doing. But if I'm going to drive from Virginia to Ohio, then I'm thinking over those eight hours about what the film needs and how I can implement a kind of palette—that's how films are made. In fact, in Fe26 you can barely see those props. It doesn't make a difference. It's like improvising with a blank canvas. I'm trying to fill it up.
JC Ears, Nose and Throat and Sound That are pointedly about sound. But at the same time your films aren't aurally demonstrative. How do you think and go about editing sound?
KJE I think all the films in the Big Ears program, except R-15 (2017), were shot with an Arri-S 16mm camera, which is the greatest movie camera of all time because it feels so ergonomically perfect in your hands. But it's not a crystal sync camera. When I'm shooting with it I know I have to grab audio when I'm looking through the viewfinder. I have to be proactive with audio or not have it at all. I think the Arri-S makes me be creative. And on top of that, in some of those films the sound is not sync. I like that gesture. It throws the viewer.
JC Do you approach films any differently knowing they're going to be presented in a gallery context? Or if they're previously made, how do you compile a multi-film installation?
KJE For a gallery, I like a couple things: one-take films, like Ninety-Three (2008) and films in which the process and content will affect the space. Like, if the moon film, Rough and Unequal (2017), was played by itself, it would slowly illuminate the space and then go dark.
JC To return to the subject of the audience one more time: You're of course largely making films about the African American experience, but then inevitably presenting your films in festival and gallery contexts to mostly white audiences.
KJE Yeah, filmgoing audiences, especially in America, are mostly white. Even that Jordan Peele film [Get Out]—not every black American in the country is going to see it. Mostly white people will. (laughter)
JC By and large, then, what do you want a typical viewer, of any race, to get out of your work? A glimpse into these lives or lifestyles?
KJE Not really, because they're not really lives. They're re-representations. The goal is to have certain formal qualities come out. But there's a social, political, and economic condition that's present. And that's part of the materiality, so people will get that. But I'm always outnumbered. It's always just me, if the audience is six or six hundred. I don't ever know what they're going to think. But if I'm comfortable with my own relationship with the material and upfront with the subject matter—and even if I'm not—the goal is to be consistent. At least I hope so. And if not, fuck it, I'll shoot something else next week!
A program of Everson's films will run April 8–9 as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial.
Jordan Cronk is a film critic and programmer based in Los Angeles. He runs the experimental screening series Acropolis Cinema and is co-artistic director of the Locarno in Los Angeles Film Festival. He's a regular contributor to Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Sight & Sound, and Reverse Shot.