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The Reeler Blog

When Maslin Met Burnett

Browsing Rotten Tomatoes this morning, I was surprised to find a 96 percent fresh rating for Killer of Sheep, which opened last week in New York to what I thought was unanimous praise among both critics and audiences. In the end, it indeed was unanimous; it was the fussy Goblins of NY Times Reviews Past who attacked with facile ambivalence in 1978. To wit, Janet Maslin:

The action, which of course is hardly supposed to be action at all, revolves around a black man whose only measure of prosperity is the fact that he's well enough off to give things to the Salvation Army. He is remote and depressed. His wife is bored and sexually frustrated, and she's depressed, too.

He has two children, whom we see eating breakfast and scratching and walking around the neighborhood. He has a lot of young and reasonably attractive male friends who live with grotesquely bloated women; sometimes the men get together and fix cars, or worry. The central character works in a slaughterhouse, hence the none-too-apt title. ...

The dialogue, which is read with either insufficient or excessive emphasis by the nonactors, is often buried under a soundtrack of vintage blues, making it doubly hard to follow. Even the slaughter of the sheep is numbingly uneventful.

That may be (director Charles) Burnett's very point, but he makes it so studiedly that the character's estrangement from his surroundings overlaps too conveniently with the director's arty detachment from his material.

The review is fascinating for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is its possible influence on Killer's protracted limbo -- three decades of grainy prints and bootleg tapes and word-of-mouth mythology before a distributor rolled the dice on clearing those "vintage blues" [sic] and placing the film in theaters. Not that it's more than a curio now, but I wonder if in 1978 the review meant what it would mean to a no-budget indie in 2007: near-instant death. Then there is the contextual vacuum from which Maslin seems to have been working; "(Stan) is remote and depressed. His wife is bored and sexually frustrated, and she's depressed, too," isn't the world's deepest reading of the consequences of penury, racism and urban devastation.

I don't know. Our own contemporary context implies Killer of Sheep needed 30 years to find its time; it's hard to imagine Maslin today thinking she got it right, but she, too, was writing in a different era. It's not just a matter of neglecting social dynamics, but also not having a generation of hype -- or, at best, revisionism -- to contend with. And hype matters, especially in the pullquote biosphere of Rotten Tomatoes. Except that Killer of Sheep really is that good, and there's nothing abstract about it. How could anyone misread something so honest? I almost feel sorry for her. And then... I don't. Being that wrong isn't pitiable, it's just stupid.

Posted at April 6, 2007 9:24 AM

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