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The Reeler Blog

Retro-Activity: Burnett Celebrated in NYC

Brother's keepers: (L-R) Everett Silas and Ronnie Bell in My Brother's Wedding, featured in this week's Charles Burnett retrospective at Anthology Film Archives
(Photo: Milestone Films)

By Rich Zwelling

It might be tempting to refer to the recent outpouring of interest in Killer of Sheep and its filmmaker Charles Burnett as a trend, yet the austere realism and low-key humanitarianism he has displayed over a three-decade career hardly qualifies as trendy. And while the 1977 landmark opens a new Burnett retrospective starting Friday at Anthology Film Archives, the progammers sought also to highlight shorts dating back to 1969, lower-profile features like The Glass Shield, and Burnett's other recent revival, the 1983 feature My Brother's Wedding.

"Killer of Sheep is the one that's gotten plenty of attention lately, and I think deservedly so," said Jared Rapfogel, the retrospective's programmer. "But we wanted to give My Brother's Wedding another chance to be seen. It didn't have the lasting success that Killer of Sheep did, and it feels somewhat neglected."

The comedy/drama Wedding centers around 30-year-old Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas) -- who works for his parents in Los Angeles -- and his relationships with a more successful brother and a much less successful friend. The new print represents Burnett's first fully edited cut of the film since his producers rushed a rough (and ultimately unpopular) edit onto the festival circuit in 1983; Wedding was subsequently shelved, never receiving a theatrical or video release until last year.

Another highlight is 1990's To Sleep with Anger, which tells the story of a rural southern family adjusting to life in Los Angeles urbanity. With the aid of its star Danny Glover, Anger became Burnett's most critically successful feature to date. "It's his best known film, but for certain reasons, prints are hard to come by," Rapfogel said. "So it's rarely screened these days."

The shorts include the 1969 student film Several Friends and When It Rains, both focusing on the untoward realities of Los Angeles ghetto life and deliver rebukes to the sensationalism of '70s blaxploitation. A pair of 2003 releases merge fiction and documentary: Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property examines the mystique of the Turner myth through a mixture of interviews and dramatizations; and Warming by the Devil's Fire (Burnett's contribution to the PBS television series The Blues) draws from his childhood experiences while expressing the contrast between the harshness of the blues and the uplift of gospel.

The retrospective concludes with a screening of director Billy Woodberry's 1984 drama Bless Their Little Hearts, another rarely screened effort for which Burnett provided the script and cinematography. "We're really excited," Rapfogel said, "because we've wanted to show it for a while now, and we're finally getting the chance."

The Films of Charles Burnett runs Feb. 8-14 at Anthology Film Archives; visit the venue's Web site for additional program and schedule information.

Posted at February 7, 2008 1:45 PM

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