Charles Burnett’s debut feature, Killer of Sheep, resides so far outside the norms of movies-as-usual that I might as well review it as sculpture. Let’s say that it’s made of stone–a possibility that’s easy to imagine, given the great number of rocks that its characters fling at abandoned buildings, passing vehicles, junk lumber and each other. The setting is Watts in the 1970s, which Burnett presents as someplace random and mineral: a mad, bleached accumulation of cement dust and rubble. Yet despite all the chunks of this and that lying around, and despite the work’s deliberate gaps in form (which let time pass with abrupt economy, and locations change without transition), you’re likely to experience this piece not as an assemblage but as something whole, made from a single block. It’s chiseled: each scene starkly lit and cleanly faceted, with its actions, editing, black-and-white cinematography and musical soundtrack standing sharp and clear against the scene on either side. Killer of Sheep is one of those rare films that’s so substantial, you feel you could walk around it, test its weight, observe how firmly and forthrightly it meets the ground.
That ground for Burnett is African-American, working-class and (above all) familial–though which family in particular you will learn about is not immediately apparent. With brusque strokes, Burnett begins Killer of Sheep by carving out for you four figures who don’t belong to the main body of the work, even though they’re representative. They are a silent boy on the verge of puberty, seen in close-up so that his hot eyes occupy most of the screen; his little brother, cowering and weeping so that he’s hardly seen at all; the father, a fleshy man in a T-shirt, who hunches over the older boy, raging at him for his own good; and finally the mother, the only member of this group who is seen in full figure, in motion. She steps forward at the end of the introductory scene to provide its punctuation: a slap to the son’s face.
These first images have plenty of impact but not much visual depth, in part because the unnamed characters are framed and lit to loom in the foreground, more like archetypes than individuals, and in part because Burnett is at heart a realist. He shows no background because the house is bare. There’s nothing to distract you, then, from the theme of Killer of Sheep, which the father literally shouts into the camera, and which is confirmed in young eyes that want to cry but won’t. A man fights–with a brick if he can grab one, with bare hands if he can’t.
This theme will echo again and again once Killer of Sheep focuses on its central character, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders): husband, father, slaughterhouse worker, amateur auto repairman, insomniac. He is a powerfully built man, whose torso, bared to the summer heat, might give you another suggestion of sculpture, and whose occupation 9-to-5 is none too delicate. Many times in the course of the film, though, Stan will resist being drawn into violence, despite his grim awareness that he “might harm someone else.” He stands apart, appalled, at the prospect of liquor-store hold-ups, or the sight of a man wounded in a street brawl. He shakes his head in revulsion when approached by two happy-go-lucky acquaintances who want to hire him as an accessory to murder–not to do anything, you know, just to be there. Stan is taciturn on that occasion, though his wife (Kaycee Moore) is not. She sweeps through the screen door of their bungalow, onto the front porch and down the steps, railing against all the men who don’t know God gave them brains. But Stan knows. He’s got so much on his mind that he no longer smiles, or rests, or makes love to his wife.
So, to the tally of formal gaps in Killer of Sheep, you can add gaps of another kind: between men and women, between character and circumstance, between Stan and the world around him.
As much as these breaks are painful, they can also strike you by turns as absurd, uncanny, ironic or just plain funny. A realist like Burnett can find reasons for all these moods right in front of him. The film’s children provide him with an especially rich source, starting with Stan’s beloved young daughter Angela (Angela Burnett), who makes her indelible first appearance wearing a rubber dog mask and sucking her thumb. Later, some of the older kids (not Angela, thank God) demonstrate their high spirits by jumping across the sky–or, rather, from one building’s roof to another–in an astonishing shot that makes your heart leap at its terror and freedom.
Strangely, there are no teenagers among these kids. The population of Killer of Sheep is evenly divided between grown-ups (most of them in their 30s) and younger children (who may talk trash but have not reached puberty). What’s missing–another gap–is the age when sexual desire is most overwhelming and adventurous. Regret, longing, sorrow and hope all complicate the urge for the adults; while for Angela, lovemaking is just part of a song by Earth, Wind and Fire, which she belts out to herself and her doll while her mother looks on quietly and smiles.
For most viewers, the biggest gap of all in Killer of Sheep will probably be the plot. There isn’t any. Burnett spins out little stories (a failed attempt to buy a used engine for a car, a failed excursion out of Watts to the race track), which sometimes involve side trips into lives other than Stan’s. You also see single, long scenes that are complete in themselves, like Joyce’s epiphanies. (In one of these, Stan and his wife dance in their house to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” gradually coming closer to each other–until he wordlessly shrugs out of her arms and walks away. In another, even more devastating scene, he ignores her invitation to bed and instead lets little Angela come into his lap. She lingers there, enjoying his embrace, while studying her mother with puzzlement and guilt.) Intercut with these domestic moments and the views of the neighborhood, you see periodic images of Stan at work in the slaughterhouse. What you don’t get, though, is an overall narrative that would make some of these scenes into climaxes while treating others as mere exposition or transition. Instead, each scene in Killer of Sheep has its own weight, its own mood and often its own music–anything from a Paul Robeson lullabye to a Little Walter blues to William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony.
The effect is humane in spirit, tentatively hopeful at the end, but rock-hard and pitiless in its honesty. Burnett persuades you that you’re seeing the world as it really is for these characters, whether they’re played by the large and vivid roster of nonprofessionals or by the cast’s two real actors, the profoundly moving Sanders and Moore. Their lives are denuded in many ways, materially impoverished and spiritually numbed; but for all that, they have the grandeur of unchallengeable fact.
All that remains for me to say is that this stunning film has been around since 1977, winning prizes and distinctions of many kinds, and almost nobody has had a chance to see it. Made for less than $10,000 by a cast and crew that could shoot only on weekends, Killer of Sheep was first shown sporadically, at festival, museum and university screenings, and then hardly shown at all. The original 16-millimeter elements sat in their cans, decaying; the existing 16-millimeter prints were scratched and faded; and a home video release was impossible, because Burnett hadn’t cleared the rights for his soundtrack’s wonderful music. He’d never had the money.
The history of film has too many such stories–but this one has a happy ending. With financial support from various sources, the UCLA Film & Television Archive has restored Killer of Sheep and bumped it up to the 35-millimeter glory it never had. This fresh version of the film, with the music rights cleared at last, is now being distributed nationally by Milestone Film & Video, beginning with runs at the IFC Center in New York City and the Nuart in Los Angeles. In effect, Milestone is giving Killer of Sheep its debut theatrical release.
I feel safe in calling it one of the best new films of 2007.
In Offside, Jafar Panahi has given himself a break from the intensity of his most recent films–the claustrophobic, desperate maze of women’s lives in The Circle, the abjection of the wounded, would-be criminal in Crimson Gold. Instead, his new picture takes place within a holiday atmosphere. Busloads of wildly excited fans stream into Tehran’s soccer stadium, cheer themselves hoarse for their team and then pour out into a nocturnal carnival of blaring car horns, cheap fireworks, flag-waving and street dancing. Iran has beat Bahrain! Iran is going to the World Cup!
This much of Offside is documentary: shot daringly and exhilaratingly on the fly, while the real events unfolded. The fictional part concerns half a dozen young women whom Panahi assembled as his cast, with each disguised as a young man. It is illegal, you see, for women to enter the stadium, even if they love soccer as much as their fathers do, even if they play the sport better than their brothers. So, evidently, it’s common for a few determined girls to try to sneak in. Offside is the deceptively light story of such impostors–their schemes, their capture, their frustration at being held where they can hear the match but not see it–and of the soldiers who keep the women under arrest.
A clue about the guardians: They’re not having fun, either.
You, however, will probably have a ball with Offside, as you get to know the characters, marvel at their get-ups, share in their boisterous defiance and at last watch them join the celebration. These women won’t be denied. Nor will Panahi, who in effect sneaked himself and his crew into the midst of a big public event, much as his characters sneak into the stadium.
Dissidence has rarely been such a kick.
Short Take: The world is full of Carmens–Preminger’s Southern military-base Carmen Jones, Godard’s bank-heist nuthouse Prénom Carmen (with music by Beethoven), Saura’s flamenco rehearsal Carmen, Rosi’s full-dress Andalusian Carmen, Joseph Gaï Ramaka’s Afro-pop bisexual Senegalese Karmen Geï. Now we’ve got a South African shantytown U-Carmen directed by Mark Dornford-May and conducted by Charles Hazlewood, with the Cape Town-based troupe Dimpho Di Kopane playing Bizet’s score and singing in Xhosa.
Pauline Malefane, who helped adapt the libretto, is simply magnificent in the title role, except vocally. She shrieks in the upper register and her intonation, at best, is approximate. These are no small problems when you’re listening to two hours of opera. The compensation: Malefane is as wild and dangerous as Carmen should be, with nothing about her of the conventional sexpot. Andile Tshoni, a much stronger singer, matches her well as her Jongikhaya (that is, Don José). The irresistible chorus is an entire township.
U-Carmen has its US premiere at Film Forum in New York, March 28-April 10.