After 30 Years, Killer of Sheep Finally Gets a Proper Debut

Plus: Spidey number three, and four from Criterion

The film of the season, if not the year, is a Southern California slice-of-life from 1977 that hasn't aged a day. Critics have long hailed Killer of Sheep, a stirring and sophisticated evocation of working-class Watts, as one of the great debuts in American cinema and a landmark of independent film. Shot for under $10,000 on 16mm over the course of a year, it was the thesis project of UCLA film school student Charles Burnett. Frequently described as a homegrown heir to Italian neorealism, Burnett is widely acclaimed as the greatest of all African-American filmmakers by people quite aware of Spike Lee. So why is it you've probably never heard of Killer of Sheep, let alone seen it?

There are many reasons for Burnett's marginalization, starting with the fact that he's a poet of extraordinary subtlety in a culture that cherishes neither the poetic nor subtle. He is, moreover, a subtle black poet who speaks of African-American experience in fresh, complex terms. On top of these obstacles to popular acclaim, Killer of Sheep is scored to a terrific unauthorized pop soundtrack, the unsecured rights to which have restricted its public screenings.

"It was never intended to be shown theatrically," Burnett explains from his home in Los Angeles. "It was shown in the community and to people interested in social problems, but there wasn't the sort of distribution and marketing then that there is now. The idea of it being in theaters back then would be like going to the moon!"

Killer of Sheep (Henry Sanders)
photo: 1977 Charles Burnett and 2007 Milestone Film & Video
Killer of Sheep (Henry Sanders)

Times may have changed, but Burnett remains something of a cult figure, even as his masterly debut is poised to reach its first widespread public. Meticulously restored at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, a new print of Killer of Sheep will soon be touring the art-house circuit, starting with a March 30 run at the IFC Center. The project is a six-year labor of love for its distributor, Milestone Film. "Killer of Sheephas always been one of those movies considered impossible to release," says Milestone co-founder Dennis Doros, "and to finally achieve it means a lot to us. It's a film that we've always loved."

"I was a little shocked when I got a call from Dennis saying it was on 35mm and restored and coming out and everything," says the star of the film, Henry Gayle Sanders. As Stan, a family man whose job at the local slaughterhouse lends the movie some of its richest images and most heartbreaking metaphors, Sanders leads an inspired naturalistic ensemble, whose ease on camera is richly harmonized with Burnett's quotidian poetics. "It's just a simple slice-of-life kind of movie," says Sanders, "and you didn't see many of those at the time. I don't think it was something anyone had ever seen before."

"I was responding to the way people were making films about the working class, giving simple solutions to complex problems," Burnett elaborates. "Without injecting my own personal feelings about what the solutions might be, I wanted to show how things really might be to live there. Killer of Sheep actor Charles Bracy puts its plainer: "We just wanted to make a quality film for all types of people." That's as fine an ambition as they come.


Twin Peaks Season 2
DVD release, April 3Originally aired on ABC from the fall of 1990 to the summer of 1991, the second season of David Lynch's epochal cult TV show finally gets a home-video release courtesy of Paramount. It might not match the infectious charm and craziness of season one, but what does?

Best of 2006
April 4–24 Formerly known as "The Village Voice Best of . . . ," this annual program of last year's overlooked, undistributed, under-seen, and overrated returns to BAM piggybacking on the results of the indiewire film poll co-coordinated by former Voice film editor Dennis Lim. "Best of 2006" goes heavy on the Korean critics' darling Hong Sang-soo, whose latest, Woman on the Beach, is supplemented by Tale of Cinemaand Woman Is the Future of Man. Hong compatriot Kim Ki-duk makes a surprise appearance with Time, a film presumably less moronic than everything else he's made. Best in show are a pair of Portuguese provocations: Pedro Costa's grueling grunge triumph Colossal Youth, and Joao Pedro Rodrigues's melodramatic mindfuck Two Drifters. Sight unseen, Les Signes, the latest from the enchantingly anachronistic Eugene Greene, is one of the season's must-sees. BAM.

Los Muertos
April 6–12 This tantalizing enigma from Argentine original Lisandro Alonso follows a released convict as he voyages into the jungle in search of his daughter. Plot-wise, that's about it, give or take a goat mutilation or two. Alonso's lucid compositions, hypnotic pacing, and organic ambiguities make for a transporting, unsettling experience; think Blissfully Yours crossed with a slasher film. Anthology Film Archives.

Syndromes and a Century
April 18Speaking of bliss: I love you, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Meditating on the past and forging into the future, the visionary Thai wunderkind reprises the diptych structure of Tropical Maladyand comes up with something even more divine. Heady and heartfelt, this miracle of a movie puts formal finesse and human sentiment in perfect equipoise to diagnose the subtlest strains of internal unrest—while prescribing its own ineffable magic for remedy. Just see it; you'll know what I mean. IFC Center.

Spider-Man 3
Opens May 4Peter Parker proposes to Mary Jane, Thomas Haden Church plays the Sandman, Harry Osborne goes on a rampage, blah blah blah. Everyone will see it, and if the first two installments of Sam Raimi's soulful pop franchise set a precedent, most will dig it. I'm there just to watch Spidey get all Dior Homme in his spiffy new jet-black ensemble. "Revenge is like a poison that can take us over," cautions Auntie May of his sartorial turn to the dark side. "Before you know it, it can turn you into something ugly!" Are you kidding me? Black is so the new black.

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone
May 9The latest from Tsai Ming-liang is a double homecoming. Shot in his native Malaysia, it marks an escape from the frustrated malaise of The Wayward Cloud, if not exactly a major leap forward. The gang's all here: Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chy, dampness, ennui, and minimalist mise-en-scéne of maximal pleasure. IFC Center.

Four From Criterion
DVD releases, May Couch-potato cinephiles can find out why a 40-year-old French flick was the critical smash of 2006 when Army of Shadows hits stores in a supplement-packed two-disc edition (May 15). True crime connoisseurs can get their socks knocked off, Japanese-style, with Shohei Imamura's terse and perverse Vengeance Is Mine (May 15). Someone, somewhere, may discover The Third Man for the first time courtesy of this definitive DVD (May 22); crazy talk aside, Carol Reed's canonical warhorse is endlessly rewatchable. And Sansho the Bailiff, Kenji Mizoguchi's sublime tale of dissolution in feudal Japan, is one of the all-time greats on the big screen or small (May 22).

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