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Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection

Still, as Kino did when they issued Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust on DVD, Milestone recognizes with this disc that they are shepherding an underappreciated body of work and a larger artistic context — not just one indispensable film — onto a wider stage of acknowledgment and conversation. I particularly appreciate Milestone’s inclusion of four Burnett shorts on this disc, of which Several Friends (1969) is the most bracing and also the most predictive of Killer’s tone, subject and aesthetic. Later shorts embrace the didactic moral and political stances that Killer of Sheep refuses so pronouncedly, but times have also changed, and Burnett’s verve and curiosity as an artist exceed the summative “morals” that conclude When It Rains (1995) and Quiet as Kept (2007). And if Armond White is typically obstreperous in his liner notes — repudiating all forms of middle-class cinephilia as reactionary and under-thought except, apparently, the writing of essays for high-end, niche-marketed DVD packages — his warnings against embracing Burnett’s work too quickly, or because one feels obligated, make for suggestive, devil’s-advocate reading.

From the gutting of animals to the myriad scrapes and bruises of neighborhood horseplay to the poignancy of an empty lot as a locomotive races by, Killer of Sheep returns again and again to the ubiquity of injury and the tremendous feat that is simple survival. But the warmth and wit of the film also lay the grounds for a tempered optimism and a commemoration of life as lived. The human spirit does not conquer all in this film, though it endures quite a bit, and it often thrives or winks when we expect it to sag or to calcify. By the same token, we must not presume that Killer of Sheep has safely joined the ranks of popular celebration and critical regard where it has always deserved entry, or that Burnett’s status as an era-defining filmmaker has been conferred, or even deserved beyond a reasonable doubt.

But Milestone, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and their various partners in this restoration have done wonderfully proud by Burnett’s work, as well as the work of his actors, collaborators and co-conspirators. More than archiving the glories of these films, the DVD reiterates their questions and releases their contradictions to an undernourished film culture that wants them and needs them. A marginalized film produced on and about the peripheries of the culture (and the industry), but which the Library of Congress long ago enshrined as one of the fifty most priceless films produced in America, can now be seen, heard, reframed and debated by actual Americans. And that, among many other things, is America to me.


A Q&A with Charles Burnett appears in the second annual 20 Interviews issue. Click here to purchase 20 Interviews 



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