In the prologue to his 1945 novel Cannery Row, John Steinbeck articulated the difficulties inherent in capturing a real time and place in a work of artistic fiction, likening the process to that of a marine biologist attempting to capture the most delicate of specimens. Ultimately, Steinbeck concluded, it is easier to simply open the jar and let the little creatures ooze in of their own accord, and this is the approach he took to his novel—“to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”
Charles Burnett’s 1977 Killer of Sheep, opening this weekend at Shattuck Cinemas, has this quality. It is an episodic film that moves at a languorous, summertime-like pace as it charts the life of Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker struggling with depression amid the ghettoes of South Central Los Angeles. The film captures the dark reality of racism and poverty, of a bleak existence with little hope for the future, and yet it resorts neither to easy cynicism nor simplistic idealism. Images of despair and disillusionment are juxtaposed with the simple, almost transcendent joys of love and family and friendship: the embrace of a loved one; the gaze of a child; a quiet moment of togetherness in the fading light of evening. It is as though Burnett simply opened the lens and allowed the essence of 1970s Watts to flow into the frame, whole and untouched.
One of the film’s most remarkable achievements may be its authentic portrayal of children at play. With the directness of a documentary, Burnett’s unassuming camera records the exploits of kids left to their own devices, staving off boredom and adulthood with improvised games amid tenement complexes and dusty vacant lots. They haven’t much, but they make do with what they have, from dirt clods to battered dolls, from passing trains to accessible rooftops. And Burnett succeeds beautifully in depicting the seemingly innate inclination of boys everywhere to take any opportunity to throw a rock. Put an unfamiliar object in its path and a dog will sniff it; an infant will put it in his mouth; and an 8-year-old boy will invariably throw a rock at it.
The dangerous terrain between youth and old age is one of the film’s central themes. “You’re not a child anymore!” a father tells his son in the opening scene. “You soon will be a goddamned man! Start learning what life is about now, son.” The father’s scolding is punctuated by a mother’s slap across the face, a stark wake-up call delivered with a sad, maternal smile.
Later an iconic shot expands on the theme, showing kids jumping from one roof to another across a two-story drop, symbolizing the perilous gap between childhood and adulthood. The camera then tilts downward to follow Stan as he descends a stairwell into that very chasm, looking up at the children as they hurdle over his head.
Along the way, the adult world is burnished with echoes of a long-lost past in the form of old Southern words and phrases that suggest where these characters have come from and what they’ve left behind, evoking memories almost archetypal in their ability to comfort as well as afflict with nostalgia for days gone by.
Rediscovering classic films can be like a series of “a-ha moments,” with missing links in the progression of cinematic style, technique and vision revealing themselves like long-lost Rosetta Stones. Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, while clearly drawing on preceding films and genres, is a seminal film for many reasons, but primarily for its application of the Italian neo-realist techniques of the ’40s and ’50s to black urban life in America; its low-budget indie aesthetic; and its use of popular music in shaping and defining its imagery.
The film’s obscurity is in large part due to its soundtrack, a wonderful blend of classic jazz, blues, R&B and pop songs for which Burnett was unable to afford the legal rights. Thus Killer of Sheep never enjoyed commercial distribution and was bottled up under threat of litigation for three decades, until Dennis Doros of Milestone Films (with a bit of financial help from director Steven Soderbergh) undertook the daunting and expensive task of securing those rights and presenting a beautifully restored 35-millimeter print, courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Since the advent of MTV, the use of popular music in films as the all-consuming soundtrack to a scene has proliferated, most often in youth-centered films. At its worst it is a lazy method of direction, using the song rather than the image to carry the essence of the scene. But at its best, as in Killer of Sheep, lyrics and music deepen and amplify the impact of the imagery. One especially effective scene features Stan and his wife (Kaycee Moore) in a heartbreaking slow dance to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” played out in silhouette against the harsh glow of sunlight through a tenement window. Another scene, of a weekend outing derailed by a flat tire, is granted both gravity and humor by the strains of Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues.”
Only one song remained out of reach. Milestone was unable to secure the rights to Washington’s “Unforgettable,” which originally punctuated the final scene, so Burnett instead opted to repeat “This Bitter Earth,” which proves not just an adequate substitute but perhaps an improvement, providing a fitting reprise for the film’s central themes.
Killer of Sheep poses no easy questions, seeks nor finds no easy solutions; it merely presents the African-American experience in a particular time and place. And, through a relentless focus on character—on everyday people and their everyday lives—Burnett manages to find the universal in the specific, depicting the timeless struggle of men and women to—as Washington sings—ensure that the dust does not obscure the glow of the rose.
KILLER OF SHEEP (1977)
Directed by Charles Burnett. Starring Henry Gayle Sanders and Kaycee Moore.
Playing at Shattuck Cinemas, Rafael Film Center (San Rafael) and the Castro Theater (San Francisco). 80 minutes. Not rated.
A Milestone release.
Photograph: Henry Gayle Sanders and Kaycee Moore share a delicate moment in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, opening this weekend at Shattuck Cinemas.