Thursday, June 21, 2007

Abattoir Blues

Killer of Sheep
(Charles Burnett, 1977, US, 35mm, 80 mins.)

That's the way nature is; 
an animal has his teeth 
and a man has his fists.
-- Killer of Sheep (1977)

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

While Italy produced neo-realism
and England produced kitchen sink
realism, Killer of Sheep transfers
that same kind of cinéma vérité
look at lower-class life to 1970s America. Except for the salty language
and afro picks, Charles Burnett's B&W debut feels like it could've been made decades before. (The use of Paul Robeson songs on the soundtrack, including "The House I Live In," also provides a link with the silent films of Oscar Micheaux.) At the time, African Americans didn't rate depiction in art house terms. There were shoestring crime pictures and social-issue dra-
mas, but Killer of Sheep was something new...and old. At the same time.

Burnett captures a lost world where boys throw rocks at trains, young
men rob houses in broad daylight, and middle-aged fellows sit around playing dominoes. Suburban kids of all races may have been rollerskat-
ing and playing video games, but folks in post-riot Watts were just trying to get by with what they had. Wide-eyed title character Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is a romantic who was born at the wrong place and time--the Harlem Renaissance might have been more welcoming to his kind.

Worse yet, Stan works in an abattoir--the kind of job that makes "gar-
bageman" seem appealing. The slaughterhouse scenes are expectedly, um, icky, but no actual ovine-killing is shown. Stan and his stylish wife (Kaycee Moore) have two kids. Their son (Jack Drummond) is a teen troublemaker and their dreamy daughter (Angela Burnett, the director's niece) likes to wander around wearing a dog mask that covers her entire head (this strange bit of business lends the movie a surrealistic air). 

Stan may be depressed, but he insists he isn't poor. He has a point. After all, he does live in a house rather than an apartment, but he isn't rich, and he never will be. Not if things stay the same, and the film argues that they will. Nothing will ever change. Not for people like Stan. That doesn't make Killer of Sheep depressing, but nor does it make it uplifting. J. Hoberman compares it to John Cassavetes' Shadows, which makes sense, since that music-steeped first feature also focuses on a person of color. Like Shadows, Killer of Sheep features a cast of non-professionals.

Burnett's film, however, hasn't turned out to be as influential. Unlike Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It (1986), Killer of Sheep has been seen too rarely to influence as many filmmakers. John Singleton's Boyz n the Hood (1991), for example, also takes place in South Central, but that's where the comparisons end. David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000), on the other hand, clearly drew inspiration from it--too much for my taste.

What seems surrealistic in Killer of Sheep (the girl in the mask) seems will-
fully eccentric in George (the boy in the superhero outfit). Fortunately, Green found his voice in time for All the Real Girls (2003), which drew from personal experience. Ironically, Hoberman describes both Sheep and George as "sui generis," adding that the latter is "at once brilliant and in-
ept." [Long produced by Terrence Malick, Green produced two SIFF films: Craig Zobel's Great World of Sound and Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories.]

As for the plot of the former, it lacks one. Burnett follows Stan, his family, and his neighbors around as they live their lives. Like a jazz musician, he finds the notes as he goes along--sometimes harmonious, sometimes discordant--rather than building up to the sort of orchestral flourish that would cheapen the entire enterprise.

As with Stan, Killer of Sheep has had a hard-knock life, but to keep the
musical analogy going, the grace notes have been accumulating since the
1980s. Burnett shot the film over the course of a year--some reports indi-
cate two--while attending grad school at UCLA (the IMDb cites a budget of $5,000, but $10,000 seems more likely). It was completed as early as 19-
73, but not screened until 1977. Due to copyright issues, it virtually disap-
peared after that. Then, when the time came for a DVD release, it took six years and cost a whopping $150,000 to clear all the music rights (Mile-
stone Film & Video will be doing the digital honors). In 1990, it was among the first 50 titles added to the Library of Congress by the National Film Registry. And Burnett's alma mater never forgot about it. The UCLA Film & Television Archive not only restored the disintegrating print, but blew it up from 16mm to 35mm (though it retains the ramshackle look of its origins).

Like last year's launch of Army of Shadows (1969), Killer of Sheep has never received a proper US theatrical release--until now. Don't miss it.

"The protagonist has a job: he is the killer of sheep.
But a job can break your heart, too."
-- Thom Anderson, Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)


Killer of Sheep plays the Northwest Film Forum 6/22 - 28, Fri. - Thurs. at 7 and 9:15pm (Sat.
and Sun. at 3 and 5pm). The 7pm screening on Sat. includes a panel dis-
cussion with Dr. Angela Gilliam (anthropologist, author, and professor at
Evergreen State College), Eddie Hill (filmmaker and producer), and San-
dra D. Jackson-Dumont (Deputy Director of Education and Public Prog-
rams, SAM). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-267-5380 for show times.


  1. One of the really wonderful things about the film is the music. Burnett's musical selections span the history of 20th century African-American music, from Scott Joplin to Earth, Wind & Fire. In addition he uses classical pieces by Rachmaninoff and von Suppe. So, the music has a scope beyond the period and setting of the film.
    Likewise, the location is Watts in the early 70's, but it could just as easily be any dusty, industrial urban-outcropping in any city in the world.
    So, it's a film about blacks, in a black idiom, but it isn't a black film. It's a film about what it is to exist in a hard world [or as Dinah Washington sings, 'This Bitter Earth']. As such, it could just as easily have been an Asian film, a Middle-Eastern film or a Latin film. In fact, if you were to make that film today in Watts it would be a Latin film. So, the specialness of Burnett's movie is that it's specifically about those people at that time but, like any great work of art, it reaches beyond it's immediate subject to encompass the human condition. That sounds corny, but when an artist does it right, that's what it is and it's da bomb.

  2. The run of KILLER OF SHEEP is being extended at NWFF. The film screens this week at 7 & 9:15pm nightly and now also JUNE 29 - JULY 5, Fri-Sun. at 9:15pm and Mon. - Thurs. at 7 & 9:15pm.

  3. Thanks, Adam. That's fantastic news.