Sunday, April 1, 2007

Killer of Sheep

One of the major cinematic events of 2006 was the first American theatrical release of Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 French Resistance thriller Army of Shadows, which enjoyed a long run at the Film Forum. So poor was the film's reception on its initial French release that it had to wait thirty-seven years for its U.S. debut. When it finally appeared stateside, critics were falling over themselves to praise it and it figured prominently on many year-end top 10 lists (coming in at number eight on this critic's list). The Film Forum will try to duplicate their success by screening another lost Melville film, Le Doulos, this summer, but the major rediscovery of 2007 is likely to be Charles Burnett's 1977 film Killer of Sheep, currently enjoying its American debut at the IFC Center.

Killer of Sheep, an episodic slice-of-life centering around an impoverished black family in 1970's Los Angeles, was shot as Burnett's thesis at UCLA's film school and was never intended to see theatrical release. The film nonetheless screened on the festival circuit, winning a prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival, and became an acknowledged classic of American independent cinema. However, Burnett's decision to use an extensive soundtrack of blues and jazz pieces without obtaining the copyrights prevented commercial screenings for many years. Now on the film's 30th anniversary, audiences finally have access to the film, and are treated to a newly restored print, blown up to 35mm from the film's original 16mm stock.

The film centers around Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), the head of a small household who works at a slaughterhouse as the titular killer of sheep, a fact that's mined for all its metaphorical import. Completely worn down by his numbing routine, Stan walks through life in a zombie-like trance. Unable to sleep, no longer interested in sex, Stan is caught in a cycle of futility. As New York Press critic Armond White, who introduced the film at the March 31st screening, indignantly reminded the audience, this is not an optimistic film. It is, however, a beautiful one, and captures brilliantly, with only the merest hints of violence, the desperation of ghetto life.

One sequence in particular illustrates the sense of futility that pervades the entire picture. Stan and a friend decide to buy a second-hand car engine. The film follows the entire odyssey of the purchase. After receiving his paycheck, Stan cashes it at a liquor store, drives to the home of the seller, haggles the price, scrapes together fifteen dollars and buys it. Stan and his friend then carry the unwieldy object out to Stan's truck. As they wind their way down an old, twisted staircase, the camera follows them slowly, emphasizing the strenuous labor involved in moving the massive engine. Finally, exhausted, they heave the object onto the bed of the pickup truck, only to see it tumble into the street and break irreparably the second the truck moves. Like the engine, like the sheep being led to slaughter that Burnett's camera lingers on, Stan is being killed by the force of his circumstances. Although this may not be a film about the triumph of the human spirit, as White made clear, it is nonetheless a film that depicts a hopeless situation with honesty and with great beauty.

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