18 September 2007

Aboveground: Killer of Sheep (1977)

For many years Killer of Sheep persisted more as a legend than as a movie. Charles Burnett’s UCLA thesis film, shot in the alleys and bungalows of Watts over a year’s worth of weekends with a cast and crew of friends, never entered the commercial distribution channels but nevertheless built a substantial reputation. It was the kind of independent production that the specialists had deemed essential—an early entry on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry even though Burnett’s film never had the chance to reverberate through the national consciousness. It was a piece of American heritage even if most Americans ignored it and the few who sought it out had hard luck finding it. Killer of Sheep became a staple of most discussions of black independent filmmaking, even if it was only a title that triggered nods and genuflection. People who’d never seen a Burnett film nevertheless cited his largely unknown body of work as a rejoinder to media hype and adulation over Spike Lee. There was this film called Killer of Sheep out there somewhere and it sounded like a honey of a cudgel if one was out to dismiss the latest independent up-and-comer, black or white.

I’d noticed references to Killer of Sheep for a few years before I got a chance to see the film. Like Chimes of Midnight, it was a legendary but unavailable film that belied the all-too-frequent conventional wisdom that DVDs and Netflix had made cinematic connoisseurship available to everyone regardless of geography. The only way one could see Killer of Sheep was by seeking out dens of taste and programming savvy in a local context. I heard that an Introduction to Film section at the University of Chicago would be screening the film one Sunday afternoon. I knew the instructor, so I slipped into the screening along with a few friends I invited who’d also run across arcane allusions to Killer of Sheep on occasion. The style was quite a bit different from the three Burnett shorts and one feature I’d seen already. It was an unassuming picture, the kind that one often struggles to get one’s head around. Purportedly an American take on the neorealist movies of DeSica, Burnett’s film constantly undercut all the expectations that came with that Italian baggage: the film’s incidents of degradation and listlessness never congealed into a protest or a statement, per se—just an unpredictable set of scenes that seemed to say everything and nothing about being black in America. Killer of Sheep was such a confounding experience that I wasn’t even sure whether or not I was disappointed upon finally seeing it.

When I spoke afterwards with the instructor who’d put Killer of Sheep on his syllabus he expressed surprise that Burnett had ever made another movie. It was easier—and, in some ways, keeping with the myth—to believe that Killer of Sheep was totally sui generis. Later, with indistinct memories of Killer of Sheep on my mind, I hastily composed this bit of prose to accompany a Burnett Q&A session: “Burnett’s does something more…: it lingers on a scene until its documentary value has been exhausted and its unanticipated poetry has been revealed.” That’s not entirely wrong but it’s not very insightful either.

I had the chance to see Killer of Sheep again last week at the Crest, the Sacramento art house that I patronized with some regularity during high school. In those years I’d see whatever had attracted a moderate amount of critical controversy, though I always secretly wished that the Crest would jazz things up a bit and dig up something like Killer of Sheep instead. Now, thanks to the indefatigable tenacity of Milestone’s Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, that flippant, adolescent desire has been realized. Milestone spent six years clearing the music rights to Killer of Sheep—the official reason the film never saw a commercial release over the past thirty years. After breaking house records in New York and winding through the country, Killer of Sheep finally reaches the smaller markets and draws a sparse crowd. Alas, white boy cinephiles must find a new rite of passage now that Killer of Sheep no longer needs tracking down.

Seeing Killer of Sheep with an audience in a commercial movie theater (even an art house) is quite different from seeing it with a dozen college freshmen who stared at this holy grail with indifferent, weary eyes. One lesson: Killer of Sheep is a crowd-pleaser, at least if I measure that from the hearty cackles and cries of ‘Oh shit!’ that met the protagonist Stan’s misadventures throughout the film. Audiences are getting Killer of Sheep, even though this 35mm version is shorn of ‘Unforgettable’ in the final sequence and often projected in the wrong aspect ratio. (Most modern commercial theaters do not have the proper 1.37:1 lenses that would allow them to screen the film without occasionally chopping off a head from the top of the frame. Burnett shot the film on 16mm, a format that’s never subjected to the 1.85:1 masking that constitutes the industry standard for 35mm. And, while UCLA’s restoration efforts and Milestone’s publicity campaign are clearly positive developments, the thirty-years-coming popularity of Killer of Sheep has its drawbacks: the film has been criss-crossing commercial art houses so much this summer that the print screened last night was much more heavily scratched than the 16mm print that used to circulate through a certain underground outfit.)

The film isn’t necessarily any easier to grasp today than it was upon first viewing. Most literature on the film defines Killer of Sheep by what it’s not: a conventional narrative film or a blaxploitation effort. (Providing an alternative to the images of the latter was one of Burnett’s aims in making Killer of Sheep in the first place.) Still, it is not entirely without precedent. Burnett’s efforts to craft a ghetto-as-slaughterhouse analogy remind this viewer of the heavy-handed juxtapositions in Eisenstein’s Strike and Chaplin’s Modern Times: all three films present the slaughter of livestock as a metaphor for the plight of the proletariat. The closest antecedent as narrative structure goes looks to be Boris Barnett’s Okraina, that vision of the Eastern front from 1933 that moves from one register to another with ease and unpredictability. Both Burnett and Barnett’s films are effectively a string of vignettes and it takes a few moments wading into each before we can determine whether this episode picks up a previous narrative thread or spins something entirely new. We know characters by gestures and tics before we know them by their professions or by their relationships to each other.

Killer of Sheep lacks the classical craftsmanship of Burnett’s masterpiece, To Sleep with Anger, but its own style is a rich and provocative one. Burnett alternates without any discernible pattern between heavy, pore-exposing close-ups and elaborate master shots wherein characters wander and cavort and play tricks on each other. These shots are somewhat akin to the better moments in James Benning’s contemporaneous One Way Boogie Woogie: each shot is like a closed system with each element in the frame appearing to be but one part in a raucous assembly line. The suspense and the poetry of each shot derives from the foreordained knowledge that the whole thing will fall out of balance at any moment when a single part deviates from the design. Killer of Sheep is a film about waiting: waiting for one kid to wallop the other or waiting for a poorly secured motor to fall out of a pick-up cab. Yet even when Burnett keeps these minor promises the shape of the whole remains stubbornly fixed. The kids don’t grow up and the adults don’t move up the social ladder. Burnett avoids imposing a dramatic arc on the material by leaving it incomplete, almost retarded in its natural progression. It takes some time to realize that Burnett isn’t so much prematurely abandoning the material before the big climax as he is sailing past that moment and following his characters through a state of perpetual denouement. They continue quietly unsatisfied but well past the point where they might change anything.

No comments: