Tonsler Park ★★★

[6]

Kevin Everson's latest feature is poised between abstract documentary and Warholian portraiture, and although the film is conceptually sound, the different pieces don't always fit together harmoniously. Everson took his 16mm camera and shot footage at different polling places in Virginia this past election day. He certainly didn't choose them randomly, as even thr most cursory viewing of Tonsler Park will communicate. The poll workers and the voters are mostly African-American, and although the disenfranchisement of black voters is, regrettably, an evergreen topic of concern in America, this past election -- you know, the one where angry white men put a Nazi sympathizer in the Oval -- was a moment of acute crisis, one Everson captures for posterity.

And yet, to watch Tonsler Park, you wouldn't know that democracy is going down the tubes. That's because Everson very patiently shows us poll workers and clerks just doing their jobs, helping people cast their votes and participate in the process. Each part of Tonsler consists of a single take that's the length of a 16mm reel, and Everson sets his camera up and lets it run without interruption, in most cases without movement. Most of the film consists of close-ups of poll workers, their whole faces filling the frame. Like Warhol's Screen Tests, these long shots allow us to observe humor, fatigue, confusion, and other emotions as they register on the subject's micro-physiognomy.

But Everson also places his camera low and across the table from his subjects -- "at the back of the line," basically. So the screen continually gooes black, or wavy, or otherwise flat, as a voter steps up to sign in. This disruption in the visual field occurs with an almost metronoic regularity. Sometimes, other people walk in front of the camera, or reach across, or otherwise clutter the frame, turning the clean Warhol image into something more akin to Ken Jacobs' Tom, Tom the Piper's Son, a mass of convoluted shapes and tones.

At the same time, Everson includes an extended two-shot of a pair of workers having a lively conversation; other scenes focus on workers standing against walls, Everson's camera bobbing and weaving to keep them in the frame. These shots do not have the same formal power as the close-ups, mostly because they turn the subject into an image. We see them in their role rather than getting up close and perceiving them as highly distinct individuals. It is in these shots that Everson's strategy of using non-sync sound becomes problematic, because the more ambient space the shot allows, the more willing we are to accept the sound as syncing up. The disconnection is lost.

Everson has created a fascinating work, but one that does not live up to its potential. Parts of it do not flow into either other, but neither is their lack of flow disruptive or provocative. Might Tonsler Park function better as an installation, not just because of its length and pace but because of its fragmentation? I'm not sure.

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