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Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection

In moving from prologue to the central action, Killer of Sheep arguably makes a quick leap from offering angry, cautionary words about literal brotherhood to portraying an embattled brotherhood of man, except that Burnett doesn’t traffic in clichés like “brotherhood of man,” either as writer or as director. Ending his film just as elusively as he began it — adult Stan and his wife have palpably warmed toward each other, but they cannot find their son anywhere — Burnett offers working-class life in its essential indigestibility, its odd mix of deadening repetition, frisky improvisation and illegible accident. Best of all, Killer of Sheep sustains its empathetic connection to its characters despite all the extreme mannerisms of framing and construction.

Burnett’s creative investment in his characters as well as his intense camaraderie with actors and crew bear interesting fruit on the commentary track he contributes alongside Richard Peña, program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Describing his own scene conceptions and memories of production, the softspoken auteur occasionally and unwittingly obscures whether his reflections about various people’s origins, motivations, and mutual rapport concern the fictional characters on screen or the actors playing them. These slips, if we want to call them slips, mark one more way in which Killer of Sheep bridges a divide between documentary and fictional paradigms.

Burnett also speaks movingly about his regrets regarding the nascent but prematurely dissipated movement of black independent filmmakers in which he was such a major figure; about the difficulty of finding an abattoir where filming would be allowed, which finally required moving the production hundreds of miles from its home in South Central LA; and about his attachment to the blues tracks and other music in his film, whose exorbitant price tag eventually cost Killer of Sheep any chance at a timely distribution in commercial theaters. The impossible and the mundane braid together once again in Burnett’s revelation that Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” the very heart of the film’s most famous sequence, in which Stan and his wife share a romantic but tentative slow dance in their living room, was not the original choice for that scene and was only substituted when Burnett accidentally cracked the 78rpm album he had planned to use.

The fact that Killer of Sheep is such a striking, cumulative experience — a commanding but rough film on first pass that deepens and intensifies with each successive screening — makes me hopeful but also reluctant about my more tepid responses to the other Burnett films included in Milestone’s handsome and user-friendly package. I cannot say that My Brother’s Wedding (1983/2007), which appears here in both its original cut and a new, extended version, makes anything like the immediate impression that Killer of Sheep does. Burnett handles his actors awkwardly, and though the film recognizably shares the communal sensibility and democratic montage of its more celebrated predecessor, these ingredients don’t crystallize, at least for me, into a comparably powerful or articulate experience.

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