Killer of Sheep
(Check out my previous essay on Independent American Film: The Exiles)
Charles Burnett’s 1978 indie film, ‘Killer of Sheep,’ was created over the course of five years as his MA thesis at UCLA Film School. He wrote, produced, directed, edited and provided cinematography on the picture, cementing it as an auteur work through and through. The film’s many vignettes were shot on weekends between 1972-73, with some extra pick-up shots in 1975, on a budget of $10,000. And when he optioned it on the film critics circuit, it was given a slot on the Berlin International Film Festival where it went on to win the Critics’ Award for 1978.
Despite the acclaim, the film would be seen by few eyes over the next thirty years. He meant the film to do many things: one amongst those being a document on the history of African american music. To this effect, Burnett included compositions and songs from black musicians in genres as disparate as showtunes, classical, R&B, soul, opera, blues, pop, jazz, and big band. and he included some famous pieces of music from established musicians with strong representatives like Louis Armstrong and Earth, Wind and Fire. Burnett couldn’t release the film theatrically, because he didn’t have rights to the music at the time, and getting those rights would have been costly. More expensive in fact, than the initially $10,000 budget for the entire film.
Almost thirty years later, in 2007, the UCLA Film and TV Archive and Milestone Films partnered up to restore the film in an attempt to re-release what was then thought of as a lost classic of independent American neorealism. With the help of a large financial donation from American director Steven Soderbergh, the film was restored successfully and the rights to the music were bought, for $150,000, ensuring the film could be run theatrically. The film made $416,000 in its limited run, making back the initial budget, the cost for music rights, and potentially even the cost of restoration.
Set in Los Angeles’ Watt’s neighborhood, the film gives a picture of urban, working-class life in what was then, and is even today, known as one of the lowest income and most crime-ridden areas of the city. Stan (Henry G. Sander) is a working stiff with a wife and two kids, struggling to make ends meet and to find meaning in a 9-5 life. He works in a slaughterhouse where he kills and dresses sheep for later consumption. The scenes in the film involving the sheep are often harrowing, nearly as troubling as the scenes involving the goat-child in 1977’s Eraserhead, the prior year.
Stan buys a motor at one point in the film, which he plans to use to supe up his ride and bring a little enjoyment to his life. But when he and his friend drive off after paying for it, it falls off of the back of his truck and is damaged beyond repair. Later, he attempts to go to a horse race with his family and close friends. He has been studying the horses and saving money to bet on them in the hopes of winning big. On the way, his friend’s car, in which they are riding along together, gets a flat tire. They have no spare. And so, the family returns home, and Stan feels slighted once more by life and by fate.
The vignettes continue. He runs by his local convenience store to cash a check. There, the aging, portly white woman working the counter offers him a job at the store for good pay. She is hitting on him, touching his hand, and promising him that if he takes the position he will be working in the backroom with her. The implication is all too obvious and makes Stan feel like a piece of meat in that situation. At a different time, his friends come by and offer him a job as third man on burglary they’ve planned out. Stan is against the idea, but realizes there is a lot of money to be made in the venture. Unfortunately, his wife is standing nearby in the kitchen when his friends arrive and comes outside to run them off when she hears about their hair-brained scheme.
Finally, Stan already has two children and has difficulty financially as it is. Yet his wife, his very attractive wife whom he has a difficult time taking his eyes off of, constantly paws at him for sexual satisfaction. But Stan can’t risk getting her pregnant and having another child. In each scene of their cat and mouse game, the sexual tensions mount as they kiss, or dance, or sit together in seclusion while the kids are out playing. At the moment when Stan looks like he may give in and be unable to fight her advances any longer, he puts on his strongest show and leaves the room. In the last of these scenes, Charles Burnett’s biggest filmic influences, Jean Renoir and Federico Fellini, become painfully aware. The lights are dim and the husband and wife dance together. They become increasingly intimate and Stan’s wife (I call her this because she is unnamed in the film) begins kissing him all over his unclothed torso. He pulls away and leaves the room and she remains behind, extreme emotional anguish and frustration readily apparent in all of her features. She sprawls her arms out over the nearby window pane and tears stream down her face. The entire scene is shot at medium-length with steady, unmoving camera. No words are spoken. This is pure cinema. This is cinema shot with extreme pathos very rarely matched in the medium. This is Carl Dreyer as a Black urban filmmaker in a 1970s American slum. This is the apotheosis shot most filmmakers only ever dream of pulling off. And it was done on Burnett’s first film, by himself as camera operator, on a shoe-string budget. My god!
Outside of the narrative of the life of Stan, our Everyman Blue-Collar Family Man just trying to get by as best he can, the majority of the film is made up of shots of his children playing in the streets with their roving teams of fellow travelers. They have rock and dirt wars behind rubble forts; try to push the dormant, 150-ton behemoth train cars along the tracks; they run around with unsettling masks and chitchat about school and family life; they run through abandoned parking lots and hide in blown-out crawlspaces; and they ride their bikes around town and have fun just like children are won’t to do anywhere in thew world. The people here are shown not in a sympathetic light, but in a real light for what they are: people, albeit people living in a disadvantageous way socio-economically. And they are shot on the fly, with an old black and white photo stock, in documentary fashion. Just the way the Italian neorealists used to do.