Immediately after work yesterday I headed downtown to begin the Wisconsin Film Festival
. Things got off to a nostalgic start as I found myself in room 4070 of Vilas Hall where I'd spent many an hour in Comm Arts classes as a student at the UW. It got even more nostalgic when Jim Kreul, a former TA and co-founder of the festival, got up on stage to greet us and introduce the film we were to see. Kreul's sartorial sense has shifted
since the mid-90s and he was clad in dress shirt, jacket, and slacks – a far cry from his jeans/grey hoodie days. Jim, leave the professorial get-up in North Carolina and bring back the hoodie!
Last night's showing was of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep
. Shot in 1972-73 as a student project, it was not released until 1977. While it won awards and much acclaim, it never saw commercial distribution due to the fact he never secured the rights to use 22 songs on the soundtrack which were by some very well-known artists. In 2000, Dennis Doros of Milestone Films heard about the restoration of Killer of Sheep
at the UCLA film archives and he set out, with a healthy donation by Steven Soderbergh, to secure the music rights so the film could be re-released. His quest was successful and Killer of Sheep
is now making the rounds.
Burnett's aim was to portray the lives of black people in L.A. in a realistic manner; to show well-meaning but also comparatively well-off whites that their ideas for helping the poor black communities perhaps needed a bit of rethinking. He has stated that the film was meant to be shown to communities privately and not for commercial distribution. Killer of Sheep
looks at the life of Stan, a family guy who lives in Watts, which still shows the scars of the riots there just 7 years previously. Stan works at a slaughterhouse and the sturm und drang
is making him numb to his family and life, generally.
The film lacks a 3-act plot and is more akin to Italian neo-realism with it's slice-of-life story and use of non-actors. Scenes with Stan at work are set against those with him at home where he can only muster a thousand-yard stare in the face of his wife's sexual advances. She also notes that he never smiles anymore. Stan's lethargy is contrasted by the activities of the neighborhood kids. They seem ostensibly happy as we see them running around, having rock fights, and playing on the railroad tracks amidst the vacant lots and dilapidated buildings.
The pace here is slow and deliberate. A two-minute scene of Stan and his friend are carrying an engine down a couple flights of stairs would be a 3-second shot in your average Hollywood movie. I really loved the cinematography with its judicious use of wide angle lenses and a great tracking shot of two thieves hauling a stolen TV down an alley. The way I'm describing this probably sounds like the film is a very fractured view of a man, his family, and the neighborhood they live in and I suppose this is true, in a way. But Burnett keeps things together with scenes in Stan's home. It's a modest house but it's a home for the characters. The shot composition varies so it never seems like the many scenes that take place in the kitchen are the same. And the scene with the girl singing to Earth, Wind, and Fire was absolutely charming. It's not Stan's home life which is the problem, it's his job killing sheep.
The music, which kept the film from commercial release for 30 years, is also very important here. Songs by Paul Robeson, Scott Joplin, Elmore James, Dinah Washington, et al
not only add commentary to the scene in which they appear, they also serve to remind the viewer that the situation in which the characters find themselves are historically contingent. The Watts ghettos didn't just arise out of a vacuum in the wake of the riots of 1965.
The shot that sticks with me is one in the slaughterhouse. Two Judas goats are in the foreground while a herd of sheep are in the back blissfully unaware of their collective fate. I found this is be a very potent picture and actually feared for Stan after seeing it.Killer of Sheep
was declared a national treasure by the Library of Congress and it was put into the National Film Registry and deservedly so. The film is an antidote to the Blaxploitation films fetishized by the Quentin Tarantinos of the world and stands as a great American film.