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Features

March 30, 2007

Killer Freed After 30 Years

Charles Burnett discusses survival, restoration and the mythology of his classic Killer of Sheep

Henry Gayle Sanders and Kaycee Moore in Killer of Sheep, which get its first theatrical release today in New York
(Photo: Milestone Films)

In a film full of miracles, what stays with you -- and I mean what really stays with you, what inhabits your eyes and reddens your blood and shares your seat at the movies in perpetuity -- almost defies discussion. Take Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep: A woman checking her makeup in a steel lid too big for its pot. A little girl in a dog mask. A busted car engine abandoned on the street. A man shouting, "The only thing that looks good dying is a rose." Or just the opening scene alone, a staggering short film in its own right, featuring a nameless family frayed by disloyalty.

It's a case in which the whole does more than exceed the sum of it utterly unknowable parts; it exceeds the sum of expectations, mythology and hype. Produced for $10,000 over a year of weekends between 1976-77, Killer of Sheep concluded Burnett's film school career at UCLA. Since that time, its acquired legend (critics prize at the 1981 Berlinale, selection to the National Film Registry in 1990, beautifully restored in 2000) is anchored in both its pioneering depiction of urban black life and the film's notorious unavailability; expensive music clearances kept it from proper distribution until this year -- today, in fact, when Killer of Sheep makes its theatrical debut at IFC Center.

In the intervening three decades, the film's stark cycle of privation, squalor, survival and hope in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles -- as traced through the grinding days of slaughterhouse laborer Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) -- has come to coexist with what later emerged among critics and filmmakers as a deeply influential cinematic vision.

"Earlier you take so much for granted," Burnett told The Reeler in a recent interview. "It's just another film, there are a lot of things I could do differently, that sort of thing. It wasn't made to be entertaining or slick or anything like that. It was just the opposite. We had kids working on sound and stuff like that and all sorts of thing that made it somewhat difficult to get the timing. But that wasn't my concern; it was to do other things to demystify filmmaking in the community. To show a slice of life and its complications. If I could achieve that, then it was good, you know? The other stuff was totally unexpected."

The nexus of Killer of Sheep's social-art dynamic is Stan, whose first moments onscreen bring haunted confessions of sleeplessness, an embattled burst of fatherhood and a flutter of tea-steam warming his cheek. He smiles, reveling in simple pleasure but worn down by its transience. His preteen son joins a pack of friends whose pastimes include roughhousing in the dirt and leaping from rooftop to rooftop; his 6-year-old daughter sings along to Top-40 love songs in her parents' closet. Stan's wife (played by Kaycee Moore, the character is never officially named), meanwhile, suffering her own anguish over unrequited attempts at married intimacy, evinces modest middle-class striving with an assortment of cosmetics, floral print dresses and tablecloths.

At one point, swatting off the contract killers literally knocking on her door soliciting Stan's help, she asks why they always want to hurt somebody. "That's how nature is," one responds. The quip crystallizes the fundamental question in Killer of Sheep's pulsing monochrome: What is nature in an urban culture that stifles humanity? Stan drives and skins sheep in Burnett's melancholy abattoir ballets; his feral son aggressively muzzles the mouth on latex dog mask work by his little sister. "At the beginning," Burnett added, "you have this other kid who's taught about survival and how to protect his family and things like that. I think that's something a lot of people who grew up in that environment (were told): If your brother or anyone gets in trouble, you protect him no matter what he does. In many ways, if you have a sense of justice, that could come into question, because if your brother does something wrong, you have to protect him.

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"But that's a way of surviving," he emphasized. "There are all these things that are contradictory going on, and I think Stan tries to maintain a balance of dignity and self-respect and know right from wrong. But there's a very competitive thing going on -- or I guess you could describe it as that -- and when you look at it as a jungle, it really is survival of the fittest. It's always about strength and weakness."

And so the stakes creep higher for Stan, who defends his modest home (perennially strung with disused Christmas lights, but, he reminds his friends, not nearly as bad as poor Walter's around the corner) and drops $15 he doesn't have on a used engine that soon becomes the shattered embodiment of his indiscretion. His failures supply Killer of Sheep's most substantial poignancy, particularly in the image of his wife's unconditional (if weary) love; as understood in the slow dance Stan breaks up in the middle of the film, her patience is not without cost for each of them.

When he was growing up in Watts, Burnett said, quality of life was possible because kids were more preoccupied with their risk-taking amusements than how much money their parents had. "It was a very socializing kind of growing up, but I think when you look back on it, you can see that it was hazardous," he told me. "It really was, in a paradoxical way, very healthy." The idyll is reflected several places in his film -- even in the sporadic cutaways to doomed sheep whose existence Burnett suggests is endurable because they don't know what's coming. A sudden flat tire befalls Stan, his wife and his friends on their day trip to the racetrack; temporarily cut short, their joy at the outing bolsters an indelible bond. Stan and his wife rediscover each other -- it takes seconds, quietly. The reassurance of the moment is shaken up with one last trip through the sheep.

It's an ambiguous conclusion, though Burnett acknowledges the film's legend and age has subsumed some of his more specific intentions. "I thought at the time that it was very contemporary, in a sense," he said. "There weren't that many black independent films made -- it wasn't like a set pattern or particular style or anything like that. It was pretty open. I remember Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song had come out; that was totally a different format. This screened in sort of a tour of different states and communities in the late '70s /early '80s, and I think in many ways, it was more apropos then. People were discussing social issues more so than they are now. So there was a relevance that was clearly there. I think it's looked at more as an art form now than it was a comment on a social condition then -- when it was first filmed. That was the whole idea."



Comments (1)

Incisive, lovely writing--as always. I couldn't agree with you more, Stu. "Killer of Sheep" would be a must-see during any year, but a week before "Grindhouse" is released, and with the next "Pirates of the Caribbean" waiting to crush every movie in its path, this quiet gem of a film feels all the more essential.

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