Seen at the weekend, Part 1
KILLER OF SHEEP (Charles Burnett, USA, 1977, 7)
The reputation of this hand-to-mouth film, shot on the streets of Watts during weekends with nonprofessional actors, has traversed from legendary little-seen film-maudit (because Burnett could not afford the music rights, it could neither get a real theatrical run nor ever be released on video) to part of the consensual American canon (declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress in 1990 and rapturously reviewed now, in its commercial release) without ever managing to pass through “great.”
Don’t get me wrong — everybody who imagines himself as having a serious interest in American movies, in black movies, in independent movies, in non-narrative movies, or movies, period, should see KILLER OF SHEEP, both for its intrinsic value (it is a strong film, and superb in some ways) and for its historical value. The director leaves you no doubt he is capable of masterpieces. But this film isn’t it; it feels more like a rough draft for a masterpiece than a masterpiece.
Burnett grabs you by the throat right away, with a short scene of a father yelling at his son for not sticking up for his brother during a fight. The camera stays on the boy’s face, trying to fight back tears, but the father looms at edge of the frame, hemming the boy in, entrapping him in the composition, in the immediate situation. Burnett’s style declares itself right away. KILLER OF SHEEP, though often compared to Italian neorealism, will not borrow that school’s loosely-framed “documentary-verite” look. Burnett’s compositions are tight and cramped, often overcrowded and spilling off the edge of the frame. His angles are precise, dramatic and controlled, as his characters are trapped in the world of his film and the world his film depicts. The black-and-white images are stark, usually with a very shallow focal depth, giving Burnett’s image a 2-dimensional feel that picks out the subject and encases it like a bug in amber (look here at a selection of stills for a sense of what I’m talking about — this film is brilliantly and beautifully photographed).
Scene after scene plays like tiny little jewels of revelation, with moments of recognition pouring out. The still at the top of this review is one of several of children playing in the urban wasteland, jumping from rooftop to rooftop and doing things that kids did for play at the pre-video era, but some of which would get Burnett and/or their parents tarred and feathered today by child-safety watchdogs. Playing on railroads, throwing stones, picking through rubble of demolished buildings, scuffling, name-calling, handstands — (at least that’s how *I* remember a 70s urban working-class neighborhood 6,000 miles from Watts).
One scene involves an attempt to buy an automobile motor for $15 to retool a car, and the two men load it onto their truck. Remember the truck Lamont drove during the opening credits of “Sanford & Son” — that kind of truck, only without a back hatch on the truck’s bed, and parked on an up incline. They struggle to just get it onto the bed, smooshing one of the men’s finger. Don’t worry, he assures his partner, it’ll stay in place. The camera sits at Ozu’s eye-level behind the truck, looking up at the bed as the vehicle gets ready to drive off. It’s funny physical comedy, it’s harrowing (you fear for the camera lens), it’s disheartening to the characters (“nothing we can do, the block is broken” one resignedly mutters as the image fades to black). And it serves as a kind of metaphor for how poor black families are in such a bad circumstance that they can only grasp at straws that mostly don’t turn out well (there’s a flat tire later that hits the same theme) and would require a personal-effectiveness perfection to do so, and these characters always already don’t have that. Everybody’s trapped by themselves and their circumstances, both racial and economic, and both know it and don’t know it. KILLER OF SHEEP is the rare film that shows the urban poor trapped in a deterministic framework, with little to no overt commentary upon it, even from the characters themselves.
This still comes from one of the strongest scenes in KILLER OF SHEEP. The central family’s husband and wife, played by Henry Gayle Sanders and Kaycee Moore, do a slow embrace-dance while Dinah Washington sings “This Bitter Earth” on the soundtrack. The lyrics, and we hear the whole song more than once during the course of the film, say what the characters do not, about trying to love while sending up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. The otherwise-silent vignette is one of the most convincing, touching, quietly erotic (and ultimately heartbreaking) scenes of marital love I can recall seeing on film, and I strongly resist would-be sexy scenes as a rule. It’s as if Sanders, back from a day working at a slaughterhouse (that’s the meaning of the film’s title), has been too beaten down for eros to bring him back.
There’s another, equally fine scene in this vein in which the daughter mumbles along to the “Earth, Wind and Fire” song playing on her little child’s turnable and plays with her doll while her mother watches and dolls herself up for her husband’s arrival from work.
But affecting as these scenes are, they also hint at part of what is wrong with KILLER OF SHEEP, what keeps it from masterpiece status. The moments out of time are brilliant, but do they ever really add up? I don’t think they do. They’re more like a string of pearls that just happen to be on the same necklace than a whole that ever manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Many of the scenes also depend very much on the music for resonance (I well understand why Burnett had to have THESE songs on his score; the movie doesn’t exist without them). Which would be fine, and there’s the intrinsic value of hearing Paul Robeson’s voice on a couple of songs. Except that it underlines KILLER OF SHEEP’s arbitrary, aimless feel by giving it the quality more of a series of music videos — a succession of mood images to illustrate American blues classics, than really the feel of a coherently structured and realized feature film. The second-last scene in particular is wtf territory — we’re supposed to, I think, give a tinker’s about a character announcing she’s pregnant to her girlfriends. If she had appeared earlier at all in the film, I missed her.
As I’ve said, when Burnett orchestrates faces, images and music, KILLER OF SHEEP is masterful. But when the characters open their mouths to speak, it falls flat. I’m amazed how few of those hosanna-in-excelsis Rotten Tomatoes reviews note what I think is the most obvious thing about this movie. That the acting is very poor. And in some cases, outright terrible, particularly in the supporting roles. Sanders and Moore as the central couple have presence in their excellent faces — Sanders’s eyes in particular convey a lifetime of disappointment that’s now gone beyond anger. But the rest of the nonprofessional cast show their nonprofessionalism in every way, particularly in the line-readings — flat, obviously-trying and rehearsed. And, even restored, the live sound in KILLER OF SHEEP is often so poorly recorded that the dialog cannot be followed anyway. I mentioned above the scene with the engine motor. If there was an antecedent conversation, I didn’t hear it. The scene comes out of nowhere. There’s a scene of a job offer from a randy white liquor-store owner that also comes out of nowhere and also isn’t followed up on. It contributes to the film’s arbitrary, spliced-together feeling (an inevitable risk in such circumstances of production as occurred here, but ultimately not relevant).
I watched DeSica’s UMBERTO D again a few weeks ago and was surprised by how taut and well-structured it really was, whatever nonsense Zavattini might have said about 90 minutes of unfiltered reality. The Gestapo hunt in OPEN CITY, the bicycle in BICYCLE THIEF, the dog in UMBERTO D … the Italian neorealists knew the importance of a throughline, a MacGuffin. Though often compared to neorealism, KILLER OF SHEEP simply doesn’t have that, and I realized about half-an-hour in that the film wasn’t going to go anywhere, that it would stop rather than end and the only thing to do was enjoy (or not) the individual moments. This “succession of music videos/string of pearls” feel I mentioned is exactly what makes KILLER OF SHEEP feel more like the rough draft of a masterpiece than the masterpiece it clearly had the potential to be.
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