Cinema Scope Issue 79 with Features including .. Truth and Method: The Films of Thomas Heise by Michael Sicinski, Thinking in Images: Scott Walker and Cinema by Christoph Huber, 58th Venice Biennale, Cannes and DVD Reviews.
By Michael Sicinski
Kevin Jerome Everson’s latest film, Park Lanes, is a real piece of work. By this I mean a few different things. For starters, I think it’s clearly one of the most significant achievements of his career. It’s also a film that’s fundamentally about labour—the conditions of its accomplishment and the patience required to do it right. But above all, Park Lanes is an excerpt from work, a composite slice of the daily productivity of one particular factory. Everson shot the film over a week, but he has made a day of it, as it were: arrival, work, lunch, more work, break, work winding down, and then an exit. Park Lanes is exactly eight hours long.
As such, the film reflects a day’s work on all ends of the communicative circuit. While the workers and Everson are conducting their labour over a week’s time, the eight-hour workday is the structuring principle of both the film and its making. For viewers, watching Park Lanes requires a similar commitment. That is, we have to put in a day of perception, of spectatorial labour, in order to achieve Everson’s desired effect. (The film is absolutely not an installation piece. It is intended to be viewed in a single theatrical setting without intermissions.) Park Lanes is, in this respect, a real workout: frequently riveting, sometimes open to drifting attention, but the sort of artwork that a viewer must organize his or her life around. One doesn’t so much see Everson’s film on a lark as one signs on for it, with the hope of fringe benefits.
Having said this, it is also necessary to explain quite clearly what Park Lanes is not. The very subject matter of the film, and its daunting length, undoubtedly provoke certain expectations, and most of them are inadequate to Everson’s actual work. Park Lanes is not a Warholian experiment, with fixed-gaze surveillance-style cameras planting themselves on a factory floor in order to generate a robotic record of the day’s events. It is also not a Wisemanesque documentary, with cross-cutting between various facets of the operation—in this case, a QubicaAMF factory in Mechanicsville, Virginia, that manufactures bowling-alley equipment—from production to corporate strategy to groundskeeping.
Everson’s look at activity in the bowling-equipment factory avoids either the single-minded myopia of Warhol or the macro-lens of Wiseman. Park Lanes does have an overall shape to it. The arrival, departure, and work breaks fall where they would in the course of the eight-hour day, and only in the last hour does Everson show us fully assembled lane parquet and gutters on the testing floor. But Park Lanes is a capacious film, broken into rather obvious 30-minute cycles, and although there is some broad consistency across the entire eight hours, Everson tends to employ different types of camerawork, depth of field, and staging of the subject. The labour segments are reasonably independent and modular. Each worker seems to be occupying his or her own semi-private workbench, assembling his or her own individual component in relative isolation. Even as Everson focuses on a particular worker’s assembly (drill-pressing into a piece of metal at hour four, for example, or “REG” ratcheting pistons to what looks like an outer fastener in hour one), there is a strange absence of ambient noise or other workers shuffling about in the background.
This may well have to do with the particular layout of the shop. The old AMF company was known for its bowling equipment and chain of alleys across the US, with a few bowling centres in Canada. (There’s apparently still one in Guelph.) The manufacturing arm of the company merged with Italian company Qubica in 2005. But AMF stands for American Machine and Foundry. And indeed, if there is one aesthetic dominant in the eight long hours of Park Lanes, it takes the form of an endless array of ways to manipulate metal. Everson, always a filmmaker fascinated with the particular processes of work, was no doubt attracted to the unique possibilities of AMF, where the division of labour approaches total abstraction. As we watch Park Lanes and see individuals at their work stations engaging in small-scale metalwork, we have no way of knowing what they are making, or what these things would ever possibly add up to. If you’ve got sharp eyes, you can see at the beginning of the film that the employees enter the factory through doors with bowling pins for handles. Aside from this, it’s well into the second half before one could intuit just from the information onscreen that all of this metallic clinkety-clank will become a pin sweeper, a scoring system, or a ball return.
As per Marx, the division of labour leads to systematic alienation, the sense that one’s labour power stands outside and apart from him or herself as something “other.” Since none of these folks working in their cubbies can see their small place within a total system of production, so the story goes, they are doomed to dwell in the twilight of exchange value and the assembly line, where everyone is assigned a miniscule part of the grand task. Now, Park Lanes has nothing much to say about the employees’ economic situation. They are selling their labour to a corporation, but Everson takes care to show us the workers’ manifold skills as well as their easy camaraderie in the lunchroom. In short, they seem reasonably happy with their jobs.
But more to the point, Everson shows the workers doing what they do in a series of vignettes, with ten or so taking the spotlight in turn. To borrow a favourite phrase of Marx’s, Park Lanes turns the division of labour on its head. The abstraction of each of these workers’ components actually permits us, Everson, and even possibly the workers themselves, to regard these objects from a certain aesthetic distance. The man who is busily fitting lug-nuts at metallic shafts together in uncertain configurations seems to be solving a problem rather than following a lock-step set of orders, and as we watch him put pieces together and take them apart, it looks quite a bit like Jude Law assembling the gristle gun in Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999).
Each of the single work tasks is isolated, both by Everson’s camera and the configuration of the shop floor, into an instance of sculpture. As such, the workers and the filmmaker approach different segments of Park Lanes with their own style and flow, an openness that reflects how individual bodies occupy a task, find a rhythm, and make it their own. At the 30-minute mark, for example, Everson uses shallow focus, forced perspective, and a bobbing, weaving camera manoeuvre to depict a sequence of two men spray-painting bent metal bars as they hang from moving wires on a conveyor. It takes a while for Everson to pivot the camera up, for us to see the men’s faces. Up to this point, the sequence resembles the Brakhage of The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), where the material stuff of the scene takes dominance over the work being performed on it. Once the men appear, their jovial movements playing off Everson’s slowly panning camera, this scene evolves into Sensory Ethnography Lab territory, the hiss of steam eventually dominating the soundscape and provoking a tension between observation and sculptural Brutalism.
This sculptural element, together with the wide berth for demonstration/performance that Everson affords each subject on the shop floor, are two aspects of Park Lanes that demand that we watch it more closely. Does this film have what we might call documentary value at all? For years, Everson has been one of the most egregiously misunderstood contemporary film directors. If we only can see things through our old lenses, as both phenomenology and cognitive science would tell us, then most of us left our glasses at home where Everson is concerned. (I do not exempt myself from this misreading.)
Everson is one of just a handful of African-American filmmakers on the current experimental scene, and he is by far the most prolific. (He has made around 100 films, including seven features.) His films differ in style and tone from much of the dominant avant-garde vernacular, and this has sometimes resulted in audiences mistaking his work for social portraiture, small poetical windows on the daily doings of black America. So a film like The Pritchard (2011), for example, which is a single long take of a man pushing his car down the road, is typically not seen as an extension of the structuralist tradition, or a non-narrative variation on the theme of “slow cinema.”
Instead it’s often assumed to be an anthropological document, a scene of a fellow down on his luck in the “other America” where avant-garde cinema fears to tread. Similarly, Fe26 (2014) is a seven-minute caper-comedy cum actualité about two guys in Cleveland who steal manhole covers out of the street and sell them to metal scrappers. Stone (2013) is a real-time document of a shell-game hustle off to the side of a Mississippi fairground. If one doesn’t look closely at these films, they can appear to be off-the-cuff recordings of daily events in communities that avant-garde aficionados typically don’t frequent.
These assumptions have a way of finding their way into the critical discourse. When the Whitney Museum screened some of Everson’s work in a program called “Through the Lens of the Blues Aesthetic,” the promotional copy claimed that he has been praised for “conjuring the spirit of improvisation, brutality, and beauty in everyday life.” And before this, in a review of Everson’s 2010 film Erie, Michael Joshua Rowin described the artist as “captur[ing] the quotidian and every-so-often revelatory experiences of working-class African-Americans via a singularly oblique and challenging realism.” Statements like these, at least implicitly, tend to emphasize a form of cultural truth in Everson’s cinema over and above its formal articulation. With apologies to Cauleen Smith, these responses try to cast Everson as the poet laureate of the drylongso.
But Everson is a fabricator. For one thing, many of his apparently impromptu street scenes are actually staged. If you gave yourself half a minute to wonder why the subjects of Fe26 would agree to having themselves filmed while committing theft, you might also wonder whether the shell game is real, or if that car really is broken down. But then, Everson’s films are more complicated than an either/or. In many cases, the individuals in the films are performing as versions of themselves, or creating staged replicas of situations much like those they experience in daily life. But there is a chasm of differential meaning between the (unseen) lived and the (seen) replica: the space of representation.
Everson is also a fabricator in the literal sense. He makes sculptural objects, many of which play key roles in his films. In Fe26, Everson cast one of the manhole covers and a crowbar himself. These forged objets d’art mingle in the film with their actual industrial counterparts. In his recent feature film The Island of Saint Matthews (2013), which is about the community of Westport, Mississippi, and the various artifacts and documents that people lost in a massive 1973 flood, Everson shows the village preacher signalling to the parish with a church bell that is in fact a metal sculpture made for the film by Everson. Brooklyn Rail editor Leo Goldsmith compares Everson’s object-related (dis)simulations to those of Matthew Barney. But, of course, where Barney strives to create a film-world to showcase his high-ticket constructions of plastic and Vaseline, Everson makes physical pieces that are as subtle as his films. They practically ask to be mistaken for the real thing.
And so, the short version of everything I’ve said above is: Everson’s cinema has no relationship with documentary. Or, to perhaps be more precise, Everson has the same type of relationship to documentary codes as filmmakers like Chris Marker, Trinh T. Minh-ha, James Benning, Su Friedrich, Deborah Stratman, and others, who call upon the apparent transparency of realistic film meaning in order to take the viewer somewhere else. And when Everson’s films directly address historical matters, as with The Island of Saint Matthews or The Golden Age of Fish (2008), about the geological structure of Cleveland, the films treat historical knowledge itself as a fabrication, something to be hammered into shape like molten metal.
When we watch Park Lanes, we make assumptions about what we see, and they are most likely true. The people onscreen are QubicaAMF employees; they are actually making bowling-alley parts; they are working within the space and at the same general rate that they otherwise would if Everson and his crew were not there. But we cannot know any of this for sure. So, given the unusually shallow film space created by some of the employees’ work spaces, we could reasonably ask whether Everson moved them around in order to highlight their labour, creating small mini-prosceniums within the broad rectilinear expanse of the shop and its warehouse shelving.
One man near the end of the film, for example, has 360-degree access to his workbench, and is constantly moving around the large motor as he works on it. This foursquare organization of the workspace, along with Everson’s still camera, calls to mind Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide films. Meanwhile, Everson’s medium shots of a semi-independent sander and large stretches of lane floor, is almost certainly an homage to the patient, process-oriented style of the late Harun Farocki. And some segments, particularly those involving the slow lateral movement of flat metal parts for spraying, emphasize both the artificial wall created by these mobile objects and the mitigated volume that opens in the gaps between them. Everson’s patient camera, together with the gestures of repetitive labour, recalls some of Sharon Lockhart’s film work, particularly Lunch Break and Exit (both 2008).
Park Lanes may be a reasonably truthful document. There is no reason to suspect that Everson has staged a set of labour-like procedures within an actual factory. But we can see from the overall structure of Park Lanes, its eight-hour-long game, that it has a half-built narrative armature. The scenes in the break room, appearing within the film just at the point they would within an actual workday, point to this wisp of narrative organization, as does the workers’ gradual transition from sockets and sheet metal to larger and more recognizable parts of a bowling alley. But, more than this, the QubicaAMF employees in Everson’s film exude a tone of ease and familiarity with each other that is a clear sign that Park Lanes is largely what it appears to be. To bastardize an old saying, I doubt these folks could fake sincerity so well. So as we watch them eat, discuss their fantasy football teams, razz someone for trying to eat his sandwich with a fork, or joke with the young woman who made a crappy pot of morning coffee, Everson is showing us another side of the AMF crew apart from their labouring bodies.
And yet, once again, Everson’s art may not be quite so simple. For one thing, as the workers frequently let slip (or was it intentional?), Everson’s very presence changes the factory environment. Not only do the men in the lunchroom joke about taking care when discussing NCAA hoops in front of “the guy from UVA” (Everson), but at one point one employee goes to the commissary to buy a cookie and mistakenly hands it to the cashier instead of his money. We can tell from the reactions that he did this only because of his self-consciousness around being filmed. In these and several other respects, Everson’s presence can be felt in Park Lanes, if not as an image then certainly as a Heisenbergian factor, impinging upon situations that would otherwise play out quite differently without his crew.
But we can also read these break-room scenes in another way. While they do provide privileged moments of interaction and community within the film, it would be simplistic to say that these segments allow the workers to emerge as more “real,” or to display themselves in a freer, unalienated guise. After all, a great deal of Park Lanes is about the beauty and delicacy, the skill and patience, of the close work performed by these professionals. But, in another way, we can think of the relaxation during the breaks as just another form of labour, less obviously regimented but nevertheless carefully monitored and organized for the factory’s work force. Given that right now humans can still perform functions that robots cannot, it is necessary to award employees with breathing room to eat and stretch. This is just a matter of necessity.
But although the ways in which the QubicaAMF workers spend their breaks—eating, watching TV, or talking about sports—by no means require justification, we can understand that their leisure time is a kind of “second shift,” preparing to resume work and readying the mind for an upcoming bout of consumption. If the “hanging out” moments serve to somehow authenticate Park Lanes, we must be careful, because such moments even within an empirically verifiable reality represent surplus labour, the way we do our bit for the global economy even if we can only cheer it from the sidelines.
And this brings us full circle. (Or, shall we say, the ball has finally returned.) Park Lanes is an eight-hour film, and as such it demands a full day of your screening time. Hanging with it, to see all the different ways Everson can depict various facets of the production process, is indeed both rewarding and enlightening, but it does require a substantial amount of effort. Park Lanes is a film about labour that transmits that slow, patient, day-in, day-out process of making things directly onto the viewer. There isn’t a collapse between representational and experiential time, but there is an attempt to provoke a general equivalence between the two. The factory employees are involved in making bowling alleys, a recreational product with an industrial basis: work for play. Everson is constructing their individual labours into an overall concept, a film that demands complete commitment on the part of the viewer: play for work. It’s the viewer’s job to negotiate this dynamic, playing it through to the final frame.