Review: The Island of St. Matthews
The consistency of Kevin Jerome Everson’s vast oeuvre—which spans short films, videos, and other media (sculpture, photography, installation)—resonates with the everyday, proletarian rituals he often uses as subject matter. His sixth feature-length film, The Island of St. Matthews, takes a fascinatingly oblique approach to exploring the tensions between nature, labor, and memory. As with his past works, its construction is deceptively simple, harboring conceptual and sensual intricacies that are equally manifest in the grain and light leaks of the 16mm stock (transferred to digital) and in the contemplative mood the film engenders.
Everson’s inspiration for The Island of St. Matthews comes out of his aunt’s terse response to his question about their lack of old family photographs: “We lost them in the flood.” The film unfolds entirely in his parents’ hometown of Westport, a small, rural community just outside of Columbus, Mississippi. Everson first juxtaposes languorous images that are seemingly connected only by their prominent use of rippling water as a compositional element: a man waterskiing (and wiping out); a man working at a lock and dam; and a baptism. This sequence is followed by interviews with locals who recall a pair of devastating floods in the area in 1973 and ’79. Among those providing testimony are a group of women congregated in a church parking lot, the church’s bell-ringer, a flood-insurance saleswoman making a pitch to new homeowners, and a one-armed former construction worker stricken with Parkinson’s. All of their stories—uniformly rich with anecdotal detail, including one woman’s remembrance of returning to her ravaged home, opening the front door, and getting blindsided by a fast-drifting television set—conclude with some variation on the painful concession: “That’s all that I can remember.”
Everson’s central subject here is collective memory, especially the kind that is forged by African-American communities in blue-collar or impoverished areas. But he is perhaps equally captivated by the repetitive movements of waves and of the dam’s mechanized doors, and by the spectacle of labor itself. From a beauty-school instructor lecturing on the proper way to apply conditioner, to the dam worker closely monitoring the condition of the barrier under his charge, Everson films work not just as “work” (that is, as a necessary pain in the ass) but as orderly, ritualized motion. In other words, Everson’s laborers—as with the black rodeo performers practicing calf-roping in the short Ten Five in the Grass (12), which will screen with The Island of St. Matthews during its theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives, and the clean-up crews dealing with the aftermath of the BP oil spill in Half On, Half Off (11) and Fifteen an Hour (11)—are more than mere cogs in a capitalist machine that ruthlessly exploits them (although there’s that, too). Rather, the workers’ lovingly filmed activity registers as both ravishing and profound, yielding a mostly spellbinding linkage between the ostensibly mundane and the metaphysical.
Everson leaves his sneakiest and most conceptually intriguing move for last. In the film's end credits, we're told that the production included contributions from both a costume designer and a water skiing coach. By calling attention to the essential artifice of some of what we've been shown (but which parts?), Everson effectively casts doubt on the capacity of cinema to represent in a nuanced way the most immersive movie of all: reality. Pace Picasso, Everson is after the lie that tells the truth—but just how much deception it'll take to access the truth remains an open question (not to mention a compelling reason to keep watching).
The Island of St. Matthews runs March 6 – 12 at Anthology Film Archives.