Saturday, February 14, 2009

Review: "Killer of Sheep"

"Killer of Sheep" (1977) was writer/director Charles Burnett's Master of Fine Arts thesis at UCLA's film school, and it is perhaps the grandest student film ever. Filmed on weekends for two years on location in the Watt's region of Southern Los Angeles, it initially smacks of the urban man's response to "The Last Picture Show" (1971), what with it's black-and-white depiction of bored American existential quandary. It is, however, it's own film. 
Burnett knows intimately the world he lays bare here. Gaggles of children run and play amongst the city's decaying infrastructure, while the adults are either stupid, brutal, or, in the case of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), depressed and contemplative. 
There is no tangible plot, but, of course, there is not meant to be. We are simply shown moments in the every days of these people, and from this tapestry we glean some kind of meaning. This inherent and full-bodied understanding of cinema is rare, least ways on display in a director's first feature. 
The real world history of this film is somewhat storied. Completed in 1975 and first shown publicly in 1977, it was held up in legal tanglings for 30 years until the rights to the music could be purchased, and it was worth the wait. As with most great films, the juxtaposition of music and images is it's best element. The score is all pop and blues songs, the most effective being "This Bitter Earth", sung gloriously by Dinah Washington. It is first used when Stan dances with his wife, and it shows up again against images of Stan in the titular profession. Indeed, it is clear that the mechanized slaughtering of sheep is meant to be some kind of metaphor. The film will cut directly from crowded sheep milling about mindlessly right to a group of children giggling and play-fighting. 
Aside from some (rather endearing) sound and editing stumbles (this is a student film), "Killer of Sheep" is something quite marvelous. Original, thoughtful, meditative, wry and original, it has landed at our 21st century feet like a cinematic time capsule from childhood neighbors we saw but never met. 

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