Wednesday 6 February 2008

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Of all the films to make 'most important film lists', on the face of it this one wouldn't seem to be an obvious choice. It was made by Charles Burnett, a film student at UCLA who was there only because it only cost $25 to get in. This was his thesis film and it cost $5,000 to make, shot in black and white and featuring low budget or amateur actors including Burnett's own daughter. He didn't have permits and I'm sure he didn't pay soundtrack royalties. As Burnett describes it, he made it as an anti-Hollywood film, something that depicted the reality of the black neighborhood that he lived in without ever being blaxploitation.

It really does show something different, especially though the documentary style that he chose isn't far off the reality style that's oversaturated the marketplace today. The characters don't look like movie stars, they don't act like movie stars and they do completely believable things in completely believable ways. It's the little things that impress here, like the sounds outside the room we're watching of a dog barking or a car having trouble starting. The people we see pay only token attention and do real things instead like yawning. One of them even picks his nose. How many times do you see that in a movie?

My favourite is when a man sitting in the front seat of a car reaches through what we expect to be a windscreen to retrieve a can of beer. There's no glass and nobody notices or cares. It's just the way it is. There are many such examples because Burnett has a talent for showing them without ever seeming to try. If anything that's the biggest success of the film: it says so much without saying anything. There's no narration and there's no linear plot, but we learn all about a whole slew of people, from a bunch of kids to the killer of sheep of the title whose name is Stan, and who is impeccably played by Henry Gayle Sanders.

There are stereotypes here like the couple of youths who steal a TV set, the boys throwing rocks at the passing Southern Pacific or grown men sneaking into a house to shoot craps, but while stereotypes are unfair exaggerations they all come from some nugget of truth and truth is what Burnett was going for here. The people in this film, from the lead on down, are real people with plenty of depth and if any of them do stereotypical things at any point, it's because that's part of being real people. No wonder that this film was put on the Library of Congress preservation list because it tells a lot of stories that capture a slice of time amazingly well. My wife grew up in this era, and while she was hardly in this sort of neighborhood so much of it still brought back memories.

The film looks cheap and many of the actors obviously have no clue what they're doing, but it really doesn't matter. While he was still a student at the time, Burnett knows exactly what he wants to see on film and he takes his camera into precisely the right places to get precisely the right shots, whether they be quick shots from below of kids jumping from building to building or long romantic scenes shot to the accompaniment of a presumably stolen soundtrack song, whether it be sheep carcasses bobbing a hook or a wife gazing with tears as her daughter massages her husband's shoulders. The overall effect is to laugh at the cheapness for a couple of minutes but be inevitably and very quickly drawn in to a work of genius. Amazing stuff. 83 minutes of no budget filmmaking and all human life is here.

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