Killer of Sheep

The UCLA Film and Television Archive is one of the nation’s premiere film restoration institutions, and they’re currently screening a series of restored films. Last night, they showed one of the most renowned of American independent films, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, completed in 1973 but unreleased until 1977. Burnett made it while he was a student at UCLA, shooting on 16mm with nonprofessional actors on weekends for an entire year, and edited it with a fine assembly of classic musical recordings.

Accordingly, music rights have kept it from being commercially released, making it a film that has been referred to more than it has been seen–despite the fact that it was one of the first selections of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Fortunately, Milestone Films have been sorting out the legal issues for several years now, and UCLA’s Ross Lipman has fully restored the film and blown it up to 35mm for an eventual theatrical and DVD release.

Lipman spoke before the screening, and talked about the unique challenges of restoring independent films, largely related to the fact that independent filmmakers rarely have the financial resources to ensure quality control at the labs that process their films. Hollywood studios can reject and tweak a virtually infinite number of prints, making minute adjustments to exposures in scene after scene, whereas independent filmmakers usually have to contend with whatever results they’re given. Even famed experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage, Lipman noted, had to settle for inferior lab work done on his films late in his career.

Because of this, restorationists have to decide whether to go back to a film’s original camera negative (if it exists) or dig through the various prints that have been actually screened, a process that can involve surprising subjectivity. Before the UCLA screening, Lipman projected samples of Killer of Sheep‘s original print beside his new “restoration,” and the clarity and definition of the new print (developed in direct dialogue with Burnett) was clearly superior.

As for the film, it deserves every bit of the acclaim it has received as one of the few authentic, sensitive, and complex portraits of inner city life in Los Angeles. In some ways, it reminded me of the semi-autobiographical works of Terence Davies, the British filmmaker whose emotional memory films are constructed as dramatic vignettes layered with evocative music from the era. But Burnett’s film is less austere and tableaux, his charming and observational scenes of everyday life in Watts are more spontaneous and documentary-like. The film’s style has been compared to neorealism, but Burnett claims to have discovered postwar Italian films after making his feature.

Killer of Sheep describes the existential struggles of a meat-plant worker who attempts to raise a small family on his meager salary without having to acquire money through the desperate and illegal means that lurk on the edges of his community. But it’s an ongoing struggle that takes its toll on his emotional well-being, dampening his spirit and making it difficult to relax, enjoy life, or maintain a relationship with his wife. “What do you think you are, middle class?” a friend chides him, but he fervently argues that he’s definitely not poor; his ongoing gloom, however, makes his defense virtually moot.

If this sounds depressing, it’s not, largely due to Burnett’s ability to highlight warmth, humor, and unexpected moments of compassion. There are many scenes involving children at play–exploring dark cellars and dirt lots, jumping from roof to roof in public housing–that are lively and joyful; revealing moments of dialogue that allude to the simple pleasures of life; and true-to-life moments of endearing irony. In one scene, two men buy a second-hand motor and labor to load it onto a truck; exhausted, they leave it on the edge of the truck bed, and when they drive off, the motor promptly crashes to the ground and tumbles down the hill; the two men simply gaze through their rearview mirrors.

The characters’ battle for economic stability and freedom can, in fact, seem so daunting that it’s tempting to read Burnett’s recurring images of the sheep factory–hanging animals, prepared and processed–as a metaphor for the systematic way in which the poor are dispirited. As Thom Andersen notes in his excellent documentary, Los Angeles Plays Itself, “The protagonist has a job: he is the killer of sheep. But a job can break your heart, too.”

The characters are eccentric, unpredictable, and complex. Conversations over coffee, post-dinner relaxation, afternoons of mechanical repairs, and good-natured teasing define much of the film’s running time. Arguments over schoolyard fights or an unexpected flat tire, or the hopes shared in a living room dance are conveyed with vivid authenticity, and each of the performers exhibit a profound naturalism before the camera.

Many of the performers were friends of Burnett’s who appeared in his first student film, Several Friends (1969). At UCLA, Lipman also screened this short work, and Burnett’s talent for making ordinary events teem with drama (three men argue about how to move a washing machine through a door) was already strikingly evident. One can only hope that this film–along with many of Burnett’s subsequent works–will accompany any future DVD.

* * * *

News update, Spring ’07: Milestone has finally secured the commerical rights to the film and will be distributing it theatrically in the US this year, with a Charles Burnett DVD box set forthcoming.

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