Charles Burnett made this stark, semi-disjointed, black & white “urban meditation” as a UCLA film student in 1977. As I understand it, it was recently saved from slow obliteration and was released for the first time officially (!) last year, making it to DVD just within the past two months. Without music rights to the songs in the soundtrack from Dinah Washington, Earth Wind & Fire and others, the film essentially sat in canisters all this time. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the entertainment industry insists on eating its own.
“Killer of Sheep” is a film with no plot, no developmental arcs, and essentially no characters to develop with and truly latch onto – and yet it’s visually stunning, and worthy of contemplation long after its end. Burnett, working with $10,000 and a collection of non-actors, depicts urban Los Angeles (Watts) in its worst days of the mid-70s: littered with rubble, devoid of much conventional employment, and populated with gangs of bored, overhyper kids and teens. There are images that will be hard to let go of, more similar to photographs from a Walker Evans or a Dorthea Lange than one typically expects from a film. The dancing scene in which the frustrated “main character” Stan and his wife dance, and which Stan then pulls away from as his wife quite literally crawls the walls with her own frustration, is priceless. The agitated children leaping from building to building, as the camera shoots them from directly below, is quite an effect. And even the real scenes within the slaughterhouse where Stan works – the blank-eyed expressions of the sheep, and their monotonous willingness to be led to their deaths – are, shall we say, “metaphoric”.
Yet Burnett’s ultimate aim appeared to be to redeem the American black working class in the face of the odds stacked against it at the time. Stan and his wife, in their limited speaking parts, give voice to a desire for something better, something more responsible and hopeful. A collection of downbeat images and scenes still contains flashes of hope, however fleeting. You wonder what became of the kids in the film, and if they got out of Watts or became the gang members of the 1980. The usage of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth” is just perfect as the film closes, with the lyrics, written decades before, capturing perfectly the feel of the film. “Killer Of Sheep” reveals its rewards slowly and somewhat depressingly, but after 90 minutes it’s fairly obvious you’ve just witnessed something special.
Celluloid Hut Rating: A-