Published Oct 03, 2013Knowing that director Kevin Jerome Everson is, in addition to being a filmmaker, a noted visual artist helps contextualize the experimental, seemingly oblique manipulation of form this is documentary The Island of St. Matthews. It does feature a handful of interviews and moments of social observation, clarifying and reiterating the defining subject — the loss of photographs and mementos during the 1973 flood in Westport, Mississippi — but the constant interruption of these traditional moments with repeating visual signifiers forces awareness of the oft-deliberate nature of film as a guiding, edifying medium.
In its simplest terms, Everson's latest feature is a series of vignettes shot in 16mm, vacillating between interviews with church patrons about the flood, a conversation at a barbershop and a pointed meeting between a young couple and an insurance agent about flood protection. Amidst these conversant, thematically related sequences are formalized shots of a man waterskiing, in addition to repeated images of a male ringing a bell, representing the early warning signal that would have alerted residents during the flood in '73, and contemplative moments at a lock and dam, which serve to break everything up.
Water in a modern context is related back to its destructive abilities continuously, much as the self-conscious use of film as a mode of attempting to recreate, or at least capture and acknowledge, the fleeting memories of a time wiped away and metaphorically forgotten by a flood. Even though the use of 16mm film deliberately gives an amateurish, home movie feeling, suggesting a personal connection and insularity of topic, Everson's conscious of juxtaposition, subverting the natural flow of a guiding narrative, which in turn adds a sense of importance and immediacy to the more abstract, less explicit imagery. It treats the past with reverence while attempting to relate it to a present that might otherwise be indifferent to, or at least unconscious of, it.
Though the subject of a flood and its ability to wash way lives figuratively and literally has a universal appeal, given that many nations have suffered similar tragedies, Everson isn't interested in anything outside of Westbank — something reiterated by the use of 16mm — limiting his experimental techniques to a text that has little external awareness, despite the breadth of socio-economic implications about race and class, in relation to the perils of inclement weather and those traditionally impacted by it.
There's an overly simplistic and insular, almost pompous aspect to this personal meditation, which gives the impression that the audience is the self. How anyone from a different time and space might interpret or engage with this film is almost inconsequential, making the act of watching it rather cold and disengaging. This is a shame because many of the techniques and ideas are quite intriguing. (Picture Palace)