Appellate Judge Tom Becker thinks the world's a slightly better place now that this exceptional film is getting its due.
Man, I ain't poor. I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can't give
away nothing to the Salvation Army if you're poor.
Charles Burnett shot Killer of Sheep in the early 1970s on a budget of less than $10,000 as his UCLA thesis project. Filmed in black-and-white 16mm, Burnett's gritty and naturalistic look at an African-American family in Watts drew comparisons to post-World War II Italian neo-realist cinema.
Until recently, very few people had the opportunity to see Killer of Sheep. A deeply personal meditation, Burnett's film sports a haunting and perfectly employed soundtrack featuring Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, among other artists. Unfortunately, Burnett hadn't secured the rights to use this music; consequently, the film could not be shown commercially. It was presented sporadically at festivals and screenings and received enough attention that the National Society of Film Critics named it one of the "100 Essential Films," and it was among the first 50 films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Thirty years after its debut, Killer of Sheep has been rescued from obscurity. The film was painstakingly restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and music rights were secured. With a new, 35mm blow-up, the film premiered at the 2007 Berlinale Film Festival.
Milestone Film & Video gives us a great DVD presentation of this almost-lost treasure.
Facts of the Case
Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders, Rocky Balboa) lives with his wife (Kaycee Moore) and two children in Watts in the early 1970s. Stan works in a slaughterhouse. He is the Killer of Sheep, and it's not much of a job, or a job he likes, but it is a job, and the bills get paid. He's not out committing crimes, like some of his friends.
Stan would like more, but he seems to know that's not in the cards. His wife would also like more—certainly more from Stan, who is distant and detached.
Killer of Sheep is a film of remarkably crafted moments. It does not follow the format of a conventional film. There is no plot to speak of, no forward momentum driven by situations or characters; however, this is not a self-consciously arty film.
In Killer of Sheep, Burnett gives us a series of vignettes depicting the everyday world of Stan and his family. Sometimes, these unfold like short stories, such as an episode in which Stan and a friend go to buy a "used" (most likely stolen) car motor; sometimes, these are simply observations—children playing in a run-down vacant lot (scored with Paul Robeson singing "The House I Live in"), or Stan going about his business at the slaughterhouse.
Viewed individually, these are images of raw power and beauty, both startling and mundane. Viewed together, they form a portrait of a place that is both changing with the times and stagnating, with a central character who is rooted in this place, but somehow adrift.
We come to understand Stan's malaise, though we are never given any definitive rationale, and in "movie terms"—particularly, a movie dealing with poverty—Stan's apathy isn't easy to explain. Stan does not consider himself poor; he has a job, albeit a demoralizing one. There is no particular misery in his life. He has friends, his children are healthy, and he has an attractive and attentive wife. Stan's crisis is of the heart, of the soul. There is no big moment of revelation, though a small scene near the end offers hope. This is just life, and life, as they say, goes on.
While Stan is the focal point, perhaps the most heartfelt character is his wife. She is confounded by Stan's alienation and longs for some warmth, a response from him, and his touch.
In a quietly devastating sequence, she and Stan slow dance in their living room to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth." He seems barely cognizant, but she is passionate and sensuous. She positions his arms around her, and caresses his back (he is shirtless) and kisses his chest, but she elicits no response from him. Finally, he steps away, leaving her alone again, and in voice over, she remembers her childhood. Kaycee Moore's performance is a perfectly pitched study of longing.
The film is completely different from, but in some ways reminiscent of, two other independent features dealing with American blacks: John Cassavetes' Shadows and Michael Roemer's Nothing But a Man. Like Killer of Sheep, these are raw, episodic, music-infused portraits that comment on the "black experience." Killer of Sheep is the only one of the three made by a black filmmaker.
Milestone Film & Video gives Killer of Sheep a very strong release with this two-disc set.
In terms of the image and sound quality, it's important to keep context in mind when viewing Killer of Sheep. The image looks a bit ragged, with nicks and speckles, the audio at times sounds muffled, and normally these would be areas of complaint. But the print of Killer of Sheep was literally disintegrating when the UCLA Film and Television Archive went to work preserving it in 2000. Particularly in light of what the preservationists had to work with, the results are astonishing. This is as close to pristine as this film is going to be, and the fact that it is technically gritty adds to the experience.
While the audio commentary with Burnett and Richard Peña, Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is a bit spotty, it is still essential. We get a history of the film and some insight into Burnett's process; the best parts, though, are when Burnett points out some of the nuances, things we might otherwise miss.
In addition to the film, Disc One contains three of Burnett's short films, which show the artist in different periods of his work. "Several Friends" (1969) has a kitchen-sink realism and episodic structure similar to Killer of Sheep. Sad and lovely, "The Horse" (1973), filmed in color, is more like a short story. "When It Rains" (1995), which was shot on video, has a completely different look and feel, quirkier and more upbeat, also simpler.
A "Killer of Sheep Cast Reunion" gives us the present-day Kaycee Moore front and center; it's hard to imagine this exuberant actress any place else. This is a nice piece filmed in March of 2007, when the restored film was presented. A trailer for the Killer of Sheep DVD rounds out this disc.
Disc Two gives us two versions of Burnett's second feature, My Brother's Wedding. Far more conventionally scripted and structured than Killer of Sheep, My Brother's Wedding was shown in a 118-minute "rough" form in 1983, then shelved for 23 years. Here, we get that rough cut and a 2007 "Director's Cut," running 81 minutes. My Brother's Wedding tells the story of a young, lower-middle-class man in South Central L.A. at a crossroads in his life. With its observations of struggling working-class people, this is an interesting companion piece to Killer of Sheep.
Burnett's most recent film, the short "Quiet as Kept" (2007), is also included on Disc Two.
An eight-page foldout includes an essay from Armond White that examines the film, puts it in context with other examples of "black cinema," and takes a few shots at critics who praised the film on its release in March 2007. A second essay, by film preservationist Ross Lipman, talks about the restoration of Killer of Sheep.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In terms of Burnett's work, the differences between the two discs are striking. While Killer of Sheep is rough, raw, visual, and evocative, My Brother's Wedding has a more polished low-budget look, but is dialogue-heavy and awkward. This is not a film of silences, subtleties, or natural interactions. The problems that existed in the 1983 edition still exist in the 2007 director's cut, and while excising nearly 40 minutes helps the pacing, this is overall not that strong a film. It's worth seeing, and it's interesting academically to compare the two versions and to consider it in terms of Burnett's development as a filmmaker (his next film was 1990's To Sleep With Anger), but were it not part of this set, My Brother's Wedding really wouldn't be a film I'd recommend seeking out.
"Quiet as Kept" is a five-minute, shot-on-video short that Burnett made as a reaction to the way economically challenged people of color were treated by FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Simplistic and didactic, this preachy PSA bears no resemblance to the director's effective and enigmatic earlier shorts.
A note on the packaging: It's a cardboard cover and the films are housed in a cardboard fold out. There are no cases for these discs, they are slipped into and out of the foldout, which I can't imagine is an especially good way to preserve the quality of the DVDs. For all the work that went into this set, it's a shame Milestone didn't go the extra mile and give us sturdier, more user-friendly packaging.
Killer of Sheep is an extraordinary film that demands, and rewards, repeat viewings. Milestone has given us an outstanding package to showcase this important work that was on the precipice of becoming lost forever. Unqualified recommendation.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
• Audio Commentary with Charles Burnett and Richard Peña, Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center
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