Rightwing Film Geek

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.

June 3, 2007 Posted by | Charles Burnett | | Leave a comment

Virginia Film Festival — part 1

These are some of the films I saw last weekend at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, with the theme this year of Money.


THE COOLER (Wayne Kramer, USA, 2003, 6)

Interesting for a while and often very enjoyable (Alec Baldwin gives his best performance since GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS), but the premise ultimately leaves the film with nowhere to go. William H. Macy plays a “cooler,” a jinx hired by a casino to go to tables where someone is on a winning streak and “cool” his luck. But then his losing streak and thus his livelihood is threatened by a woman, his long-lost son and fate (the best scene is the funny montage of people winning and Macy’s puppylike distress, it’s like a not-quite-so-brilliant version of his being interrogated by Francis McDormand in FARGO). So as a result, the film thinks it can get away with any ending — if luck is so pervasive, how can one complain? Well, I can. The ending was arbitrary. Period. And there’s something just *wrong* with the notion, to which the film’s themes inevitably push you, of seeing the Rat Pack as “old money.”


FOOLISH WIVES (Erich Von Stroheim, USA, 1922, 9)

In his odd way, though Stroheim was widely considered at the time pornographic, vile and obsessed with the low, he really was a great Victorian. A conflicted one, sure, but he saw virtue and purity in the gutter like a Dickens did. He was intolerantly insistent on honor, even (especially) among thieves or the aristocrats fallen so low that they have to team up with them. But who are still aristocrats with honor. There’s also pomo jokes on textuality (in 1922?!?!), involving a book called “Foolish Wives,” written by Erich Von Stroheim, introduced into the action twice. I saw this “Europeans swindle innocent Americans abroad” story, with the musical accompaniment including a live vocalist and words, in addition to live sound effects (one of them being someone getting paged and having their named yelled out loud). I’d only seen a silent film with a word-inclusive score twice before, with the Vision of Light PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC and the Giorgio Moroder METROPOLIS. I theoretically resist the notion, but frankly a great silent film really can’t be damaged by a score done in good faith, especially when the words are used as sparingly as here.

SCARFACE (Brian De Palma, USA, 1983, 8)


Finally saw this modern classic all the way through, and it’s a bit obvious in wearing its cinematic antecedents on its sleeves (De Palma, really?). Michelle Pfeiffer was wasted (in several senses), but Al Pacino gives one of the great operatic ham performances in recent film — “Say hello to my lee-tul friend” and all that. Though the plot as a whole, in typical De Palma fashion, is a bit obviously stitched together and episodic in a predictable way, SCARFACE overflows with great set pieces, again in typical De Palma fashion — the first meeting with the Miami crime boss, the low-key first meeting with the mother and sister, the nightclub assassination attempt on Pacino and all the buildup, the assassination bid on the Bolivian activist, sitting in the jacuzzi, immigration interrogation, and … well, practically everything in the movie.

THE ITALIAN JOB (Peter Collinson, Britain, 1969, 7)
THE ITALIAN JOB (F. Gary Gray, USA, 2003, 7)

Which film you prefer will depend entirely on what you’re looking for. If you want a suspenseful heist movie, the American film is far superior. There are two very well set-up and walked-through heist sequences at the beginning and end. Marky Mark’s inability to act for anyone but PT Anderson doesn’t destroy the film and his heist team mates are all give flavorful performances (Ed Norton and Charlize Theron in particular). But if you want a comic shaggy-dog time-capsule movie, go for the British film. I have no idea how the original could play to Americans or anyone else who didn’t live in Britain in the late 60s and early 70s (personally: born in Glasgow, 1966), but I just having a high old time listening to football supporters songs, reliving the “up your arse, ya weedy Continentals” attitude, and seeing Michael Caine and Noel Coward basically play themselves (and Benny Hill the same; though there wasn’t enough of him).


Interesting enough as a historical intro to the topic (I’d never read Nat Turner’s Confessions), but quickly turns into leaden pomo nonsense. If you think it’s some mighty insight on textuality and the “universe” that people who disagree with each other disagree about a text that bears on the matters about they disagree, you will lap this up. Otherwise, another good reason not to watch PBS.
WHEN IT RAINS (Charles Burnett, USA, 1995, 4)
As a 20-minute short with a plot (“community leader” tries to help eviction-threatened woman raise the money for her rent by asking for it on the streets) it’s less ambitious than Burnett’s feature-length film, with which it played. It’s an enjoyable 20 minutes on Community when it isn’t being an obvious, schematic 20 minues on Money.


SOLDIER’S GIRL (Frank Pierson, USA, 2003, 3)

Scheduled to run on Showtime as a docudrama about the murder of a homosexual soldier, this film, which should have been titled SOLDIER BOYS DON’T CRY, was shown to the festival because Pierson was presenting DOG DAY AFTERNOON (on which he was the scriptwriter). You see the similarities here to one of the threads in AFTERNOON — the secret crossdressing gay lover. Not exactly terrible — as usual in this kind of film, the actors are quite good when not delivering Significant Speeches, which is unfortunately all Andre Braugher gets to do. It’s just entirely what you’d expect — a transparent bid for An Issue Emmy. Pvt. Barry Winchell is despised upon his arrival at his unit, for no discernible reason, and the drill sergeant is mean to him until I thought I was watching St. Sebastian in cammies. His death at the hands of a fellow soldier whom he’d bested in a fight was intercut with his boyfriend’s Annie Lennox song at a transvestite beauty pageant (maybe the two events did occur simultaneously; but it *feels* like Scriptwriter Coincidence.) One funny moment in the Q-and-A: Pierson was describing the first sex scene between the two men and said he told Troy Garity (playing Winchell) that “you’ve forgotten this person is not a woman; you’ve fallen in love with the person, and then with the body.” Take it away, David.

October 30, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment