L.A. Story

Charles Burnett's much revered, rarely seen South Central-set film finally gets its theatrical due

There are first films like Citizen Kane or Breathless, which, as radically new and fully achieved as they are, unfairly overshadow an entire oeuvre. And then there are first films, perhaps even more radical, which haunt an artist's career not through precocious virtuosity but because they have an innocence that can never be repeated.

This second type includes Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, John Cassavetes's Shadows, and Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures—impoverished productions all, shot on weekends over extended periods of time, pragmatic in their means, necessarily based on improvisation and consequently filled with rich, ingenuous mistakes. Charles Burnett's legendary Killer of Sheep, which was finished in 1978 and, despite its enormous critical reputation, is only now getting a New York theatrical release, belongs with these.

Made while Burnett was a 33-year-old grad student at UCLA, Killer of Sheep is a study of social paralysis in South Central Los Angeles a dozen years after the Watts insurrection. The subject matter harks back to the heyday of Italian neorealism but Burnett uses the film language of experimental documentaries like In the Street, Blood of the Beasts, and Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising. (Like Anger, Burnett never cleared the rights to his extensive pop-music score—one reason why Killer of Sheep could not be commercially shown.) Sui generis, Killer of Sheep is an urban pastoral—an episodic series of scenes that are sweet, sardonic, deeply sad, and very funny. It's a movie of enigmatic antics, odd juxtapositions, disorienting close-ups, and visual gags, as when a guy sitting in the front seat of a car reaches through the nonexistent windshield to retrieve the beer can perched on the hood.

Neighborhood kids, hanging out in Killer of Sheep
Milestone Films
Neighborhood kids, hanging out in Killer of Sheep

Details

Killer of Sheep
Written and directed by Charles Burnett
Milestone Film & Video
Opens March 30, IFC Center

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Killer of Sheep has an improvised feel and a studied look—as if Burnett decided on his often unconventional camera angles and then set his mainly nonprofessional actors loose. Songs of innocence and experience collide. Even before the opening titles, the movie makes it clear that life (or maybe history) is apt to hit you upside your head. Much of the movie considers children at play, staging rock fights in a rubble-strewn lot or frisking around some derelict railroad tracks or, shot from below, jumping from roof to roof. The kids, who almost always travel in packs, have their own subculture—half seen through their imagination. A little girl affects a hangdog mask, perhaps in imitation of her father, Stan (Henry G. Sanders).

The movie has an unusual protagonist: Depressed, dreamy, always worried looking, Stan works in an abattoir (hence the title) and has two kids and a pretty wife (Kaycee Moore). She loves him but he's curiously unresponsive—at one point they dance to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth," then drift apart. Stan doesn't smile and he has trouble sleeping. For much of the movie, he wanders impassively from one scene to another. To the degree that the movie has a narrative, it largely concerns Stan's ongoing attempt to get his friend's car together. In one lengthy scene, the guys buy a $15 replacement engine—the motor is an image of futility so visceral that, rolling through the movie, it positively ungathers its moss.

On the one hand, Stan's neighborhood is a wasteland—devoid of commerce, isolated, and entropic. On the other, it's filled with vitality or at least everyday madness. People scowl and scrap their way through ramshackle lives, wandering in and out of each other's business—as when two guys dart on-screen lugging a stolen TV. The verbal jousting is often superb. (Language police should note that the zesty vernacular includes ample use of the N-word.) Neighborhood jivesters try to bring Stan in on their criminal exploits but he's stubbornly uninterested. "I'm not poor," he insists, "I give away things to the Salvation Army sometimes."

Stan is just about the only character in the movie who has a job—and it's the fact of the job, even more than its nature, that seems to oppress him. Intermittently he's shown at work, hosing down the slaughterhouse killing floor. At one point, Burnett uses Paul Robeson's pop front anthem "The House I Live In" to segue from an empty lot to the abattoir; Robeson's "Going Home" provides the background for the sheep headed toward death. The bluntness with which Burnett employs music hardly detracts from the effect. This, as Little Walter reminds us, is a "mean old world." Stan's job brings him in intimate contact with the fate awaiting all living things. He is the reality principle. The only time he smiles—or nearly smiles—is when chasing those sheep who have dimly realized what might be in store for them.

However original, Killer of Sheep has had only a subterranean influence— primarily on Burnett's UCLA colleagues (Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Julie Dash), who were surely inspired by his ability to get the movie made. More recently, there have been the movies of Southern regionalist David Gordon Green, whose 2000 debut, George Washington, mined much of its eccentricity from Burnett's film. But not even Burnett seems to have followed through on his youthful explorations; it was seven years before he completed a second feature, not that he has ever ceased working.

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