Monday, June 18, 2007
Lost and Found
When Charles Burnett was a budding UCLA film student that last thing he probably thought was that the student film he was cobbling together on 16mm stock, with many unknown and amateur players, and editing in his spare time, would wind up becoming a film school staple, shown by dozens of bearded film profs to countless budding young Spielberg’s as prime examples of (a) making the film you want to make, (b) delivering on an actual cinematic vision, and (c) unintentionally creating a cult film that only students and some selected festival audiences ever got to see. His 1977 student film, Killer of Sheep, is finally, deservedly, getting at least a limited mass release, complete with a newly restored print and a resolution of the musical/soundtrack issues that have prevented the film from achieving a commercial release so far. (Only one song included on the original soundtrack has been removed-Dinah Washington’s version of “Unforgettable”, which has been replaced with her “This Bitter Earth.”) Burnett’s movie, a totally original effort set in the post-riot Watts section of L.A., eschews the blaxploitation of the time for a grounded and strangely muted humanism. The title character (played by Henry Gayle Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse, just plods along, as does his neighborhood, and seemingly all of his environment. The film shuns plot dynamics for an incidental feel, and the screen just simmers the with the opaque stock of class structure, refusing to even hint at the politics of oppression, content with just presenting a landscape overtaken by malaise and quiet discontent. Burnett, who is still working, went on to make a few movies that were noticed (To Sleep With Anger-1990, The Glass Shield-1994), but nothing as powerful or profound as this. Killer of Sheep is a little gem, a poetic effort, a first novel-like burst of artistic energy.