His is not an unusual story. As an artist of color working within a medium not necessarily friendly to same, Charles Burnett had a decidedly uphill battle to become a filmmaker. As with many like minded ‘60s students, he turned his 16mm UCLA thesis focusing on the troubled Watts section of Los Angeles into an unusually beautiful and moving meditation on race and the rejection of the American dream. Hoping to see it released, he failed to realize that the many songs included as part of the overall poetry were unsecured. The costs of such rights issues made distribution impossible, and aside from a few festival screenings, his efforts wound up the stuff of legend. He eventually went on to work in Tinsel Town, delivering outsider works like 1990’s To Sleep with Anger and 2000’s Finding Buck McHenry.
Yet it was the mythic movie from his youth that continued to define his reputation. Many wondered if it was as good as people claimed, while others questioned the reasons why it hadn’t been remastered and restored - especially in these days of ‘everything on digital’ DVD domination. Thanks to Milestone Films, and Burnett’s alma mater, the $150,000 needed to settle the soundtrack matter was raised, and a new 35mm pristine print was struck. Suddenly, the once lost film was found - and over the course of the last few months, it has emerged as a considered classic. It sits on many ‘Best of’ lists, and the National Film Registry has selected it for preservation. Even better, Milestone has stepped up and created a seminal home video package that allows the context of the film’s creation, as well as other examples of the director’s work, to fully come to the fore.
We follow Stan, a sad man who seems lost within his trials to merely survive. He is the title entity, a man working in an abattoir helping with any and all butchering tasks. His pretty wife tolerates his many moods, but wonders why a still vital and virile male won’t take her to bed regularly. When a friend suggests he has no hope, he decides to fix up his wreck of a car by buying a used engine. When local lowlifes try to talk him into crime, his better half abruptly steps in to remove the unlawful influence. In the meantime, the couple’s two kids wander aimlessly through an inner city landscape where fake violence meets the real thing on a regular basis. It’s an existence sketched out in government indifference, a place where comfort - when it comes - arrives in short, senseless bursts always capable of collapsing in on itself.
Treating everything viewed - animal slaughter, childhood roughhousing, slow grind passion, inappropriate advances - in a manner which offers little in the way of interpretation or judgment, Killer of Sheep is a very challenging experience. It asks us, the audience, to step into a reality that seems unreal, and sympathize with people and plights that appear alien to our smug, suburban eyes. Without being confrontational or controversial, without resorting to the kind of callous stereotyping that makes ethnicity charges stories so suspect, we find grace inside the dark, dire ghetto. You can see that Burnett believes in his intentions. The movie never forces itself into situations that demand responses. Instead, we let the casual daily drone wash over us, the arguments over money and opportunity, status and stumbling blocks becoming nothing but a background buzz to the discontent surrounding the characters.
Yet you can also feel the director’s education based desire to reference past masters. While the neo-realists of Italy were far more focused on telling a story, Burnett uses the same monochrome pastiche to capture his almost amateurish moments. Real life actors Henry Sanders (as Stan) and Kaycee Moore (as his wife) are surrounded by locals and available friends, their lack of pretense apparent in every sped up line reading, every slight smile while staring straight into the camera. The camerawork is either purposefully static or unintentionally handheld, the lens capturing glimpses of faces and facets that we are perhaps not supposed to see. There is a vague voyeuristic quality to what Burnett offers, the viewer as uncomfortable witness to an unsatisfied wife, children caught in mindless cruelty, and a man downbeat and desperate.
The DVD presentation allows Burnett to put his efforts here into perspective, and the accompanying commentary track (with scholar Richard Pena) offers a great deal of information and insight. But even more startling are the short films offered as complements to the director’s oeuvre. Dealing with subjects as varied as a dying horse and Hurricane Katrina, they argue for an artist quite capable of staying within the accepted framework of the medium in order to make his points. This is especially true of the supplemental long form film offered - 1983’s My Brothers Wedding (it focuses on the various high and lows that occur as a disjointed family prepares for one sibling’s suspect nuptials). Presented in two different versions - the original 118 min cut and a new, 90 min director’s redux - we see Burnett working in a more friendly and fast paced style, while still incorporating many of the more contemplative touches that made Sheep such a success.
In retrospect, this is the kind of arcane aesthetic pronouncement that could only have survived in the ‘70s. Today, even in the most broadminded of production realms, Burnett would be viewed as a maverick making difficult cinema in far too easy going filmmaking times. This doesn’t distract from Killer of Sheep‘s amazing merits, just forewarns those coming in unprepared and expecting some kind of mainstream motion picture. This is a vision as yet untainted by the need to sell out and sell through. We can thank Milestone and the many supporters of this unusual, unmatched movie for making sure future generations can enjoy its undeniable masterwork. It makes Burnett’s struggles seem less like the story and more like a fabulous, unfathomable footnote. Once you’ve seen this film, you realize that’s exactly where said struggle belongs.