I’m sorry to say that before I watched Killer of Sheep I wondered if it would be getting as much praise as it does if director Charles Burnett wasn’t a black man. Would the film stand on it’s own without any top-spin coming from the race of the director? And the answer is a definite yes, this film is in fact a masterpiece of cinematography. After I saw it, I wondered if Killer of Sheep would have fared better commercially if it had been made by a white man. I think the answer is probably not. No matter what the race, gender, sexual orientation or planet of origin of the director, when you make a film that is as unrelentingly pessimistic and class-conscious as Killer of Sheep, your work will be ignored... at least in this country. American film for the most part has to be feel-good brain candy to be a commercial success. I suspect that in the future, this film will be seen more for its class consciousness than its take on race.
Killer of Sheep is part of a two disc set of Burnett’s work that was rescued and restored by The UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Pacific Film Archive. Apart from infrequent and scattered showings, it was going to waste and decay in the can. Yet at the same time it was chosen by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry and named one of the 100 Essential Films by the National Society of Film Critics.
Get Used to It
- Additional films by Charles Burnett
- Audio commentary
The scene is 1973 South Central LA, the post-‘65 riot, pre-crack epidemic landscape of Watts. Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is a decent, hard-working guy who’s got a job in a slaughterhouse. He also works to keep his home and family together in a place that works equally hard to tear all of that down.
It seems the world is coming at him relentlessly from all sides. In the opening scene we see the young Stan being told by his father that, without your family, you have nothing... and then his mother slaps him.... message: the world is a harsh place, get used to it. When we next see Stan he’s a grown man on his hands and knees for some reason, scraping the kitchen floor with a butter knife... message: life is all about hard work, get used to it. Throughout the film, scenes of children playing in the dirt are juxtaposed with scenes of sheep being herded into the slaughterhouse... message: the world is one big abattoir, and we are lambs led to the slaughter... get used to it.
Everything about Stan’s life is grinding him down. Yet he has the one thing his father said matters most: a family. But Stan is so numbed by his life, he neglects that one most important thing. Therein lies the biggest tragedy of all. He is losing his family, particularly his loving wife, because of his mental and physical exhaustion.
Yet it is his emotional neutrality that allows him to cope with his soul-killing job, bleak world, and doubtful future. He meets his failures with the same ambivalence as his successes. This keeps him from sinking into the ghetto morass and also prevents him from rising above it.
When compared to his friends, Stan sees himself as successful. “I’m not poor, I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give away things to the Salvation Army if you’re poor!” And at the same time he seems to know that his place in the world is fixed despite his best efforts to make it otherwise.
Burnett captures his bleak vision with some wonderful cinematography. This is his strength. He is first and foremost a cameraman. He seems to be a big fan of the locked-down camera; composing a scene and then letting the action flow in front of the lens. There is a valid comparison to be made with his work and the Italian neorealists of the 1950, and the fact that Killer of Sheep was a student film of Burnett’s goes a long way to explaining its purely non-commercial quality.
If there is one weakness in Killer of Sheep, it’s that it doesn’t have a solid story. Rather, it’s a string of vignettes, a slice-of-life kind of thing. Perhaps Burnett is saying that there is no point to Stan’s life? In which case Killer of Sheep isn’t so much a narrative as a song for Stan. If the film is a visual tone poem, then the song it sings is the blues. And if you don’t have an understanding of what the blues are, watching Killer of Sheep is a good place to start your education.
There is something to be said about a film’s quality by how long you remember it. Killer of Sheep is the kind of film that will stay with me for a long time. In the accompanying notes, Filmmaker Michael Tolkin is quoted, ” If Killer of Sheep were an Italian film from 1953, we’d know every scene by heart.” Killer of Sheep, the Charles Burnett Collection is a great pair of DVDs from a filmmaker who deserves a wider audience than he’s gotten in the past.
There are lots of extras in this set. There is a second disk with two versions of Burnett’s feature film My Brother’s Wedding. This inclusion is a puzzler for me. It’s nowhere near as good as Killer of Sheep and the accompanying notes bear that out. One version is the one that was rushed to the screen in 1983 and the other is a director’s cut from 2007. I was not impressed with either, and in fact the 1983 version made more sense to me.
Also included are several shorts which more than make up for My Brother’s Wedding. There is Several Friends, another student film that is a sort of a preview of Killer of Sheep’s style. The Horse (1973) takes a trip outside Watts and is a great little set piece about putting an old horse down. Here, race is both only hinted at and yet in the end, the main thing. And When It Rains (1995) is a short story about trying to raise some money to pay the rent. This is the best storytelling on Burnett’s part, combining all of his skill at creating a film that looks like a documentary with some narrative work that is not seen in his earlier work. And lastly there is a brand new short Quiet as Kept (2007) about a family displaced by Hurricane Katrina trying to get by. It is a short vignette in the manner of My Brother’s Wedding (close-in domestic conversation/slice of life) but a much better effort.
Also included is a commentary track for Killer of Sheep. I got the sense that Burnett is surprised in the renewed interest in his film. This is a rewardingly sincere commentary by Burnett and worth hearing.
Picture and Sound
Picture quality is amazing. The audio is rough and uneven in Killer of Sheep... though when a music track is added, the effect is wonderful.
How to Use this DVD
Watch Burnett’s keen eye for setting up a shot. He’s not one for building up a sequence with fancy editing. The film’s action takes place right in front of your eyes. Be sure to watch the shorts and note in When It Rains, the Watts Towers... they are the things wrapped in scaffolding that appear briefly behind the main character as he walks around Watts. The Watts Towers are such a landmark outside of Watts that I find it interesting that Burnett only used them in this one film... perhaps because they are such a cliche to the locals?