Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s legendary low-budget 1977 feature shot on the streets and in the houses and apartments of Watts in Los Angeles, has that marvelous capacity among motion pictures: it sneaks up on you. Much of it is deliberately understated, just-folks filmmaking (it was shot over the course of a year, for less than $10,000), but the frames often hold deep significance, especially in combination with the film’s soulful song score.
One of the early images shows one edge of a board, with long fingers curving across the surface, gripping, and a boy’s head darting in and out of view from behind. He’s dodging rocks, clumps of dirt and, presumably anything else found on the ground that can be chucked in his direction by the kids huddled behind another, similar board facing him. It’s inner-city play-fighting in the days before the Atari 2600, and it’s the kind of thing kids do when there aren’t many other options. The image itself suggests the footwork of a young man dodging the various missiles of hard-knock life.
I’ve seen quite a few films about growing up in America, but there’s an nonchalant immediacy to this one that I’ve never seen matched. The scenes where the neighborhood kids hurl themselves from rooftop to rooftop, then climb back up to the first roof just to do it again, captures the repetitive flavor of the kind of mundane, sometimes violent physical feats you attempt as a kid, over and over, just for the pure sensation of it, which breaks up the boredom. (This is something I enjoyed in the original Jackass series, with its spirit of knockabout, low-end fun.) And there’s another scene with a couple of kids standing on their heads. The film’s press notes say the image echoes an earlier picture of sheep carcasses hanging in the slaughterhouse, and sure enough it does. But what I responded to was a frisson of recognition — hey, that’s what my friends and I used to do, growing up in the 70s, because there was nothing else to do.
For a while I thought the movie might be about that kid dancing back and forth in that medieval vacant-lot battlefield, the one who’s lectured in the film’s opening scene by his dad, about what makes a man. But the title character is his father, Stan, whose job working in a slaughterhouse (where sheep are knocked cold, skinned, beheaded and rendered before his eyes and at his hands) has wiped the smile from his face. It’s in the deliberately horrific slaughterhouse footage that the film gathers its moral heft. As striking as the scenes shot on the killing floor are, they’re not as haunting as the shots that precede them — images of the sheep themselves staring forward or glancing around, as they’re herded this way and that toward a terrible and uncompromising death.
Burnett’s point here is not to make vegetarians (though that’s a possible side effect). But there’s a poetic equivalence between the images of the sheep and the everyday tableaux of inner-city life as it’s depicted in the rest of the film. Like the uncomprehending sheep of the title, these gentle people live in the ghetto into which most of them were born without quite understanding that they’ve been herded, or to guess for whose dinner they’re being served. There is one scene that suggests the encroachment of violence on everyday life, as two friends try to get Stan involved in some kind of murder plot — and get a lecture from Stan’s wife instead. But mostly Burnett steers clear of politics and sociology, concentrating on his small-scale stories and barely suggesting their larger context. It’s enough. A
In commercial release for the first time, and blown up from 16mm to luminous new 35mm prints, Killer of Sheep opens March 30 in limited release, with a slow roll-out to major cities. A DVD version is due later this year.
Directed, written, produced, edited and filmed by Charles Burnett
Sound by Charles Bracy
Theatrical aspect ratio: 1.33:1
Screened 02/22/07, MOMA Screening Room