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Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection

The Stop Smiling DVD Review

A still from Killer of Sheep

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Friday, December 07, 2007


Killer of Sheep (1977)
My Brother’s Wedding (1983/2007)
Plus short films
(Milestone)

Reviewed by Nick Davis

Charles Burnett’s legendary Killer of Sheep exemplifies how little distance sometimes exists between a sketchbook of ideas and an accomplished masterpiece, especially when, as here, the film recurrently locates the glory and the nausea of sublimity within stunted, inchoate, evanescent experience rather than long character arcs, complex narratives or abstracted political structures. When I, like most cinephiles, finally enjoyed my first theatrical screening of Killer of Sheep this past summer, my only misgivings about the film concerned its determinedly abrupt editing syntax and the inevitable blemishes of acting and sound recording it shares with any shoestring student production. Regrets persist about the muddiness of a few dialogues and about the unwitting pressure that the artful, charismatic lead performances by Henry Gayle Sanders and Kaycee Moore place on the stiffer supporting turns.

These, however, are disappointments bred of the filmmakers’ circumstances, not rebukes of their aesthetic or, finally, any more than negligible limits on their potent but delicate insights. More importantly, the film is a textbook case of a genuinely personal statement that impresses on first viewing but congeals even more fully on the second and third. Killer of Sheep invokes the poetic, street-level, undogmatic legacy of Italian neo-realism. A contemporary viewer may have equal trouble appreciating the film apart from its now-evident influence (and occasional shot-for-shot replication) within later work as disparate as John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood and David Gordon Green’s George Washington.

Still, the privilege of re-watching Milestone’s superb new print of Killer of Sheep, and of allowing for real critical gestation instead of broad comparison and retrospective affiliation, unlocks just how rich, distinctive, and internally layered Burnett’s artistry really is. The magnificent but unostentatious depth of several compositions, the regular oscillations between chipper and sinister ironies, and the subtle contractions and expansions of daily reality into poetic commentary bespeak an awesome level of craftsmanship, whatever the curbs on the filmmakers’ means. Observe how brilliantly and yet almost invisibly the editing extends two men’s hauling of a bulky, unwieldy car motor into a crystallizing, almost metaphysical portrait of lower-working-class existence. Or how, in a single, motion-matched cut from the scampering of children to a parade of conveyer-belted sheep carcasses, Burnett completely recontextualizes the whole vein of animal imagery in the film as well as its recurrent motif of blithely active yet easily woundable kids.

The movie’s opening — a zoom-out from a child’s eyes as his father scolds him for taking insufficient care of his younger brother — is all the grammar Burnett requires as a signal of subjective memory. This boy is actually our adult protagonist, immersed in a flashback of which the entire content, particularly the obliquely rendered slap he receives from his barely-glimpsed mother, echoes suggestively throughout the film. Such echoes have even ampler room to resound because Killer of Sheep, initially envisioned as part of a trilogy about the same cast of characters, refuses tidy structures or implied dramatic itineraries. Why, for example, after beginning with the parents’ severe reproofs of young Stan’s fraternal negligence does the film never furnish adult Stan with a brother, or even take much care to clarify the other character relationships beyond those of the central family?
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