Monday, August 04, 2008

Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977) [8]

It's always nice to be reminded that you don't need a Hollywood studio and a budget into the millions and millions to be able to make effective cinema. And it's all too often the case that Hollywood ignores social realism in favor of frivolous escapism. A film like Killer of Sheep re-affirms everything that can be great about moviemaking. Burnett made this film as a masters thesis while at UCLA, and its depiction of black life in Watts is not just one of the great achievements of African-American filmmaking but one of the great portraits of American life period. The movie plays out episodically, giving brief glimpses into the life of Stan, a slaughterhouse worker trying to care for his family and find personal and economic happiness. While I feel the first half-hour of the film, with its larger depiction of the Watts neighborhood, is a little too broad, the more the film focuses on Stan, the better it becomes. It's not so much that since the story is more focused means it's better; the scenes and moments that Burnett captures are much more powerful. Scenes like Stan and his wife dancing in their home, the family in the car on their first trip out of the neighborhood, even the slaughterhouse scenes are powerful. They capture precise moments but they also speak for a broader message that hangs over the film. It's that these people have no real opportunities, economic and otherwise, and their scraping to try and overcome those hurdles is almost impossible. It's in Stan's exhausted body coming home from work barely able to acknowledge his wife and kids. It's in the junk strewn dirt lots that the children in the neighborhood play in. And yet there's something so cinematically pure in how Burnett captures all of it that he allows little moments to shine so brightly. It's an astounding accomplished piece of work for someone who was still a student at the time. That since its initial release, it still stands as such a benchmark of a portrayal make Killer of Sheep all the more impressive.

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