Who can ever forget those long gorgeous tracking shots following the children of Watts across the vacant lots and dirt mounds and rooftops that define their vivid fantasy lives? There’s also the pure beauty of the faces of Stan and his people, and how Burnett is so awake to the dignity and the mystery they contain. Eros, again, is being celebrated. Also the intimacy of Stan’s daughter as she puts on her favorite white dress, a scene that would be unthinkable if it weren’t actually that girl’s real dress. Or when she plays a record in her closet and you realize there’s no way that could happen if it weren’t actually her closet. Like so much in the film, these scenes give the lie to the artifice we usually accept unthinkingly. The real does, in fact, register. In art, truth is an active value and actually matters.
Despite the crushing poverty, Watts emerges as a place you long to inhabit, a mythical realm like Bloom’s Dublin, full of its own odd grandeur.
It’s instructive to replay the film making the characters white and setting the story in, say, middle class suburbia — the dreary, depleting job…the lure of breaking the rules…an episode with the car that ends in futility…a trip out of town with friends that turns sour. Killer of Sheep is a film set in the black underclass in Watts, no question. But Burnett centers his story on a man who has the freedom he needs to question his life as deeply as any man, and Stan’s integrity on this level infuses everything else in that world.
I think of the repeated motif of the sheep in the film, those shots of sheep looking around or running in a flock as their slaughter approaches. It’s impossible to watch the film without understanding that you, sitting wherever you are sitting, are one of those sheep, and it doesn’t matter at all where you stand in terms of wealth or status. This is one of the core insights of epic poetry and you can think of Achilles or Hector as you watch Stan in the final shots, full of the joy of his strength, his erotic hold on life, as he wades through the crowd of sheep moving them on.
image via New York Times.
What’s cool about being old is that I can remember life before it became planned and corporate. I remember climbing onto the roof of my elementary school and throwing down rocks and lost balls; having dirt wars with the kids on the other side of the creek; pulling ticks off the dog and burning them at miniature stakes in the woods with my cousin. It was one weird adventure after another, not all of them wholesome, from riding elevators to crawling through storm drains.
This is the kind of world I drop into watching Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. I also return, poignantly, to the seventies, a decade I remember hating because of disco. Because of the many murders and suicides at the time, because of the shockingly brutal repression of all progressive movements, the 70’s were the beginning of the end of a more hopeful decade, when there was a “new” that existed outside of an advertising burst, which promised equality and fairness to ordinary people—poor people, women, black people…and it was also an end to a marvelous rage against conventionalism, the old models of success, the straight world. Politics in the 70’s were boring again. Suddenly I had to wear makeup and underwear.
As radical values were going down, artists were the last to capitulate (that came in the 80’s). Painting was still dead, theater was still alive, and B movies were still cool. Art films had not become some long forgotten epicurean taste.
The long first shot in Burnett’s film, the kid hiding behind a sheet of torn panelling, is pure art film, and tells us we are in a place that unfolds its nature, that tells nothing, but shows all, both soulfully and playfully. We feel Burnett as we feel ourselves when we are truly engaged in seeing, that is, not at all.
The idea of this film having anything to do with great art is in a certain sense laughable. It’s as though it made itself. The integrity of vision and visual language is natural and unforced, honest and compassionate, but also sophisticated. I relate it to Cassavetes’ Husbands or Faces in its spirit of capturing emotional situations, but with the coolness of Antonioni’s mise en scene.
The title Killer of Sheep, though, underscores the dark soul of this poem. Here is Stan, with a job which is gruesome and mundane, the kind of a job all these carefree children have to look forward to if they’re going to live a straight life. He carries the weight of this anguish in his eyes, it renders him impotent, and drains his desire. Stan is a tragic hero, in the act of making it to the next day. And no he does not travel with a spare.
Charles Burnett made Killer of Sheep in 1977, and submitted it as his thesis film at the USC film school. The film was shot in two stretches of time, separated by three or four years, due to financing problems. Meaning there was no financing. The budget was ten thousand dollars. The film was shot originally in 16mm and later, much later, delivered to audiences in a 35mm print.
One of its greatest virtues, then, is to realize that thirty some years after its completion, the narrative continues to digest the facile and sentimental cataloging that seems, of necessity, to accompany all artworks in our age of mass production and corporate revisionism. The revisionism is a matter of form as much as it is of content. Killer of Sheep resists the comfortable reviewing of mass market magazines.
“’Way ahead of its time 30 years ago, and just as stunning today, Killer of Sheep is one of those marvels of original moviemaking that keeps hope of artistic independence alive… Here’s to the miracle of a buried classic granted the opposite of a killing — here’s to life. A’ —Lisa Schwartzbaum, Entertainment Weekly”
The praise lavished on Burnett’s film comes late, and comes coated with the anxiety of amnesia in which our culture specializes. The film allows for no short hand, no reductive tagging. There are no catch phrases or sequences that can every become ‘iconic’. It is both impenetrable and transparent. The narrative does not reveal anything (the film, one could argue, reveals a good deal, but the narrative structure is not predicated on ‘reveals’). To engage in a dialogue about Killer of Sheep is to inevatably exhaust one’s own vocabulary of mystery, and self laceration. Perhaps this is what a religious artwork by definition does. It is all the things that it is not – its complete refusal to polemicize or seek ‘endings’. The tragic must never end. Perhaps it must not ever begin, either.
“The strength of this little movie is its artlessness, the non-plotted story acted by non-actors, the raw unpretentiousness of real life in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles.”—Jonathan F. Richards, film.com
One could benefit from re-viewing the history films of Rosellini, or certain Bressons. For in the end, Killer of Sheep is most about history. Not the sanctioned kitsch history of U.S. text books, or the painfully desperate hagiography of TV talking heads. This is the history that reproduces itself on American city streets, daily. Not as sociology, but as ontology.
“Affectingly beautiful … Burnett used many kinds of African-American music on the soundtrack, and the movie itself has the bedraggled eloquence of an old blues record.”— David Denby, The New Yorker.
Contemporary critics traffic in unstated tropes — those that reinforce, in the end, the accepted propaganda of arts impotence and inability to transform. For everything they write about must, somehow, find its assigned glass case in the psychic museum of advanced capital.
That film from Dryer or Fassbinder, Ozu, Godard, or Val Lewton, has always escaped from the moorings of the master discourse… as it exists in the privileged west anyway, only speaks to — at this late date — the panic that vibrates just beneath the surface of daily life. A panic that expresses the impossibility of reconciling the contradictions of western societal practice.
Like the unconscious, Killer of Sheep knows no time, but only place. Its sense of place is close to that of Oracles and myth, rather than google maps and GPS screens. Its specificity so finely concentrated and its inherent poetics so consistent and yet still unfamiliar, that we are left with an indelible x-ray of desire and unremitting angst. It is the distillation of the fleeting glimpse, the nano-second epiphanic peripheral snapshot of that which cannot be seen in any other way or form. It is a filmic truth.
I haven’t seen Killer of Sheep but I’m going to make a comment, gun drawn. I’ll start with the last statement from this Gunfighter trio: “…a filmic truth.” And since I haven’t thought much about the nature of film truth—I’m satisfied by Kurosawa’s description of “cinematic beauty”—I’ll leave that special domain to the honorable filmmakers in the gang (they’re standing on the hill). But the statement opens, by implication, the question of truth in art. That notion seems to be in the air at Gunfighter meetings, though our inquiry proceeds by a narrow focus on excellence in theatrical poetry. Perhaps in a method appropriate to an entity of unknown form, we’ve made a broad walk around some of its qualities, refusing so far to accept a definition.
Leaving aside the separate question of excellence, I want to suggest a thought experiment that involves truth, linking our concerns with one of the earliest statements of the problem. Look up Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus and begin reading at 260a. Socrates, crafty seeker of definitions, here addresses directly the question, Can truth be embodied in speech that is meant to persuade? Rhetoric v. philosophical dialogue. Well, no, as you might expect, of course not. But here’s the experiment… substitute “commercial speech” for rhetoric and “truth in art” for philosophy. And now you will have the Socratic version of Gunfighter complaints about popular culture.
I don’t think Plato would hate us for this. Even though he did banish poets from the Republic. Because we propose a corrosive ambiguity that opens a space for critique. As he did.
Now, about excellence as a practical matter for the current project, the history project. Auden’s trilogy of poetic procedure: making, judging, knowing. The making function has license over the others. Delight, then discrimination about pattern, then maybe some kind of knowing, maybe. When you turn the order around you end up with something familiar—the illustration of a judgement. Rhetoric.
Ah, let me ponder this a bit, Gray.
But check Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary…his chapter on King Lear. He discusses the tom o bedlam and the blind Gloucester on the heath. The falling down. How it can only be a ‘truth’ as it exists on stage.
I think Beckett clearly learned from that scene…and extended it throughout all his work.
I have not yet seen this movie but it sounds beautiful. John’s line, “The panic that vibrates just beneath the surface of daily life” really stays with me; this is something that we try hard to cover up but can’t help revealing. The secret horror or confusion about who we are seeps out of us like steam from a teapot, whether we like it or not. Because we don’t often speak honestly or connect in a deep way, there is (I feel) a great level of alienation in today’s world.
I realize that filmic or poetic truth doesn’t refer to fact vs. fiction but reading the writer’s comments and descriptions made me wonder: if this was a documentary what would the emotional feeling and experience be watching it? It sounds like such an honest portrayal of existing in that area, that skin, yet it is actors and not a real person’s life portrayed. I am not challenging the film but I wanted to branch out into a discussion of documentary. I don’t know if other people are very interested in documentary film but I think of Grey Gardens or Herzog’s Grizzly Man, both windows into real tragic eccentric’s lives and I wonder if those people were “characters,” would the experience of being let into their story be different? Is a character a person? Does it matter? Perhaps not but it got me thinking…
In addition to the many fine qualities the Gunfighters attribute to Burnett’s film — its cinematic beauty, its unflinching specificity, its dark parable about the endurance of the human spirit under the socio-economic crush of race and class in America — there is also the deceptive simplicity of its mise en scene. Killer of Sheep’s harrowing ontological truths come wrapped in a delightful surrealism that is straight out of Keaton, both in the physicality of its comic vignettes and in the way its montage abruptly juxtaposes those scenes with footage of the abattoir in order to evoke a more universal truth about the broader human comedy.
The success of the film certainly registered with me. At about the same time Burnett was struggling to make his movie, I was coming of age in Toledo, Ohio when I experienced my own “Killer of Sheep” epiphany. It was on a sunny, summer August afternoon in 1975, and I came home from a hard day at play with my friends to find a message waiting for me from the Human Resources office at the Montgomery Ward’s store in the nearby mall; I had just been hired for my first job, a sales position for which I had applied several months before. Instead of elation, I remember I began to openly cry, understanding that summer was finally over, and that my future now openly stretched out before me, a bleak and inhospitable road of endless, meaningless work, terminating only in decrepitude and death.
Of course, this was many years before I found a girlfriend to support me.