Sweet and lowdown

The timeless tenderness of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep

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Scattered throughout Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep are shots in which the camera recedes from the street action — kids throwing rocks, blundering thugs stealing a television — to the yearning treble of the blues-spiritual soundtrack. There are many examples of patterned poetry in Burnett's 1977 debut, but none are so affecting as these elisions, which literally pull at the viewer, casting the pall of memory over bittersweet scenes of life among the Watts working poor.

This retrospective vision seems all the more acute for the circuitous path Killer of Sheep has taken to a theater near you. Burnett produced the film as his master's thesis during the heyday of UCLA's film program, shooting it in his native Watts part-time and, without thought of distribution, artfully arranging his slice-of-life narration over tracks from his rich record collection: selections ranging from Paul Robeson to Earth, Wind and Fire. Word began to spread about Burnett's lyrical neorealism, but the essential soundtrack proved a sticking point for a commercial release, with licensing costs being prohibitively expensive — a very modern problem that more recently affixed itself to Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation. The film never really went away, winning a major award at the 1981 Berlin Festival and getting selected for the Library of Congress's National Film Registry, but theatrical distribution remained elusive until a coalition of backers came through to ensure that UCLA's recent 35mm restoration (in its earlier incarnations the film was shown in 16mm, befitting its film-school origins) could tour the country's big screens.

Thirty years later the film sings. The plot, such as it is, mostly follows Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a broad-shouldered, kindhearted husband and father of two who works long shifts at a slaughterhouse (hence the plainly descriptive title). The family struggles, but not in any particular direction: which is to say, they live. The episodic narrative is borrowed from the Italian neorealists and Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, but the sensuous film style is Burnett's own. His framing techniques — close-ups cut off at the head are thick with characters' midsections — emphasize physicality, while the use of natural light sends shots into a free-floating daydream. There is always this give-and-take between the earthy and the ethereal, never more so than in the digressions of children playing, in which Watts simultaneously seems depressingly abject and dreamily beautiful: a fragile balance, again suggestive of memory.

It is, after all, important to remember that if Killer of Sheep feels timeless, it's probably because Burnett made it that way. The film was produced in 1977, but it frequently seems as if it had been made decades earlier: it's the soundtrack, of course, but also the compositions styled after Walker Evans portraits, the camera movements evoking city symphonies, and the dissolving montage sequences, which link the film to the purest strains of silent cinema.

What makes Killer of Sheep frankly overwhelming is the way Burnett brings this evocative style to every part of his narration — a scene in which two hoods try to involve Stan in a murder gets the same attention as one in which two boys see how long they can stand on their heads. Off-the-cuff humor cuts against plaintive despair, one deepening the other.

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