'Killer of Sheep'
Burnett's Dream Reborn
A new print finally allows us to see Charles Burnett's famed 1977 feature 'Killer of Sheep'
By Richard von Busack
PEOPLE WHO saw Killer of Sheep when it came out have remembered it for 30 years. And that's the problem right there: Hardly anyone saw it. Thirty-three-year-old director Charles Burnett made his indie film on the model of both Italian neorealism and the documentaries of his UCLA professor, the Englishman Basil Wright (Night Mail). But it's not a referential film. Maybe the only deliberate link, and that's a big maybe, is a fat liquor-store owner who could be related to the female Gestapo agent in Open City.
Killer of Sheep was made for around $15,000 on 16 mm and bolstered with an unauthorized soundtrack of gospel and blues. The film has turned up here and again at film archives and festivals and was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1990.
Burnett kept working; his best-known film since is To Sleep With Anger, starring Danny Glover. Now Killer of Sheep is restored. The lawyers got all of their paperwork and royalties; and Burnett's images have been blown up to 35 mm by the UCLA Film Archive, with a little help from the Stanford Theatre Foundation.
Killer of Sheep looks into unknown territory for white viewers. In the suffering district of Watts, Burnett finds sadness, but he also finds delight and surprise. With this rerelease, it's now clear that the roster of the 1970s renaissance filmmakers—Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, De Palma—needs to include Burnett.
Stan (Henry Gale Sanders) has lost his ability to sleep. And the source of that sleeplessness is clear: He has a soul-killing job that he can't afford to lose. Stan's best friend, Bracy (Charles Bracy), tries to cheer him up, without luck. And Stan is distanced from his unnamed wife (Kaycee Moore) and his child, Stan Jr. (Jack Drummond).
All the characters have lives of their own; Stan's wife watches the children and waits for her husband to come alive again. Stan Jr. does his round of roughhousing games, playing in half-ruined houses and crouching behind wooden shields in rock fights, in the vacant lots and the dusty railroad corridor that bisects Watts.
Visually, Burnett puts his seal on Watts as surely as Jean Vigo put his seal on fog and canal boats in France. He makes Watts unique, forlorn and remote. One aspect of 1977 that comes through is the touch of anti-Bicentennial bitterness. On the soundtrack is "The House That I Live In" by Paul Robeson, with that profoundly deep-voiced singer listing the things that make "America to me"; the use of an ice-cream truck churning "Yankee Doodle" for 10 choruses might be another comment on the American dream deferred. Every frame of Killer of Sheep is clear about the implicit racism that's left Stan and his family stranded on the sandy edge of the city.
While the town is flat desert, one can find an oasis here and there. The lone advantage of rotting 70-year-old houses is jungly 70-year-old backyards and door yards; palms and banana plants and bougainvillea grow high enough to dwarf the figures. The greenery is a reminder of the American South left behind; toward the end, Stan's lonely wife mutters a stream of consciences memories of her country childhood that's a little something like the languid sentences in Faulkner or Joyce.
Among other things, Killer of Sheep is an essential movie about Los Angeles. In Burnett's lens, the city appears as a land of futility, where every man uses the wrong tool for the wrong job. In the beginning, Stan is using a screwdriver to fix a broken drain; later we see a child hammering with a monkey wrench. We can see the bricks missing from a chimney; witness the stories of tires that go flat and the cars that won't start. Children emerge like termites from a ripped out cavern in the side of a house. When Stan's Wife predicts rain to come, she adds that she knows the roof that won't keep the water out.
Maybe the most brilliant passage in Killer of Sheep is the story of an errand that fails. Stan rounds up $15 to buy a beat-up car engine. Getting it involves an uncomfortable social call and the ordeal of wrestling the engine down a flight of spindly stairs. All the hard effort leads the creation of just one more piece of street debris.
Part of the many satisfactions of Killer of Sheep is Burnett's decision to not make this just another gunplay in the 'hood movie. Early in the film, two of Stan's acquaintances come over. They to try to get Stan to be a Judas goat in a crime they're planning. Stan turns them away. But it's Stan's wife, standing in the doorway behind him that really makes them leave.
The crime story goes elsewhere, and Stan has to go back to work. He has most grinding job imaginable. Stan is the man who urges sheep into a slaughterhouse, butchering them and wheeling out the muck in the evening. Ordinarily, I can't bear seeing slaughtered animals used to highlight a fictional story. For once it's right, though. Burnett's obvious sensitivity and sorrow validates this tough artistic choice, which makes up about 10 minutes of the film. (Incidentally, the slaughterhouse scenes were shot locally, in Solano County. "I used to be a pretty big lamb eater and now I don't eat lamb," Sanders recalled, regarding the one-day visit to the killing floor.)
Considering that the film is called Killer of Sheep, it's often rather light. Burnett is cheered by Stan's toddler daughter, who has a mysterious fondness for an enchanting rubber dog mask. He likes the incongruity of Bracy and Stan, two large, muscular men, drinking their tea from tiny bone-china cups. The moment leads into a memorably bitter anti-joke that Bracy makes regarding the traditional cure for insomnia—a cure that wouldn't help a man who knocks sheep down all the livelong day.
Burnett's images have the natural beauty of black and white in opposition, and the sharp contrast of dark faces and the white-sand prairies and sidewalks of Watts. Burnett is a superb writer, catching the lines of talk as the characters pass each other.
Even the threats prove futile. A petty burglar threatens a witness: "What you looking at punk? I'll kick your heart out." What can that mean in a place where so many have had their hearts kicked out already? What's the end result of one sad man's claim: "I ain't going to kill myself. I may do somebody else some harm."
Since most neorealist movies love the violent contrast of men and women, I find it noteworthy that Burnett keeps this one opposition blurred. Yes, there's jesting. "You as tasteless as a carrot," says a plump woman to a teasing man who lolls his tongue out at her, like a calf.
But it's the romantic, tragic dance Stan and his wife have to "This Bitter Earth" by Dinah Washington that's essential to the strength of their love—and to the enduring strength of Burnett's film.
Melodrama and self-importance plays not part in Killer of Sheep, not even for a second. In little gestures, such as Stan's gentle, glancing touch on his wife's knee, we see all we need to see of reconciliation and hope.
Killer of Sheep (1977; unrated; 80 min.), directed, written and photographed by Charles Burnett and starring Henry G. Sanders, opens Friday (May 18) at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.
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