Take 26: Killer of Sheep
In July of 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, in honor of Black History Month… it’s Take 26: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. As always, there will be spoilers.
Killer of Sheep, compared to all the films on this list, gave me the biggest logistical hurdles (next to The Shanghai Gesture, which I still haven’t been able to access). How is it possible that a film ranked number 26th on this list was so impossible to source? Amazon, the behemoth cinematic library of our time, turned up with only a $36 DVD. Kanopy had nothing, Google returned only a website where you could buy the DVD. However, buried on that website was a link off to Vimeo with a rental option, and I want to plaster the walls of the internet with that URL (I loved this movie). The film, directed by Charles Burnett, was originally produced as Burnett’s master thesis at UCLA. He had a full time job at the time, piecing the work together on weekends over a two year period, until it was eventually premiered at the Whitney Museum of American Art, before making a mostly triumphant run on the festival circuit.
This film is a defining example of a labor of love. At eighty minutes long it is remarkably taut and economical. Burnett captures each scene in a way that enables the actors to thrive — whether we’re close up to the characters’ distressed faces on the kitchen floor or observing kids tussling in dusty fields as if we’re the younger sibling hovering on the outskirts, nervous to enter the fray. I could pour out a thousand adjectives in attempt to capture the poetry of the cinematography or the naturalistic ebb and flow rhythm of the pacing, but it would fail to encapsulate how I felt when I was fully absorbed in viewing. I’m endlessly impressed by Burnett’s touch and judicious craftsmanship.
There’s practically no plot scaffolding the film, and to his enormous credit, I never missed it. There are debates over the role of film in public consciousness — is it a medium for art or entertainment?Or, are those boundaries blurry enough that there’s a sweet spot on the spectrum between those two extremes? Killer of Sheep is on the far end of the art side of that dynamic, and it proves that story can be communicated and audiences entertained without the guardrails of a traditional plot. The love Burnett poured into the film extends to the soundtrack, which was so perfect it cut the other sharp edge of the film’s story. The filmmakers were unable to secure rights to use all of the songs, resulting in a limited release of the film and subsequently it’s relative unavailability. The irony is this bittersweet contrast is reflective of the very core of the film. How can so much comfort be found in the midst of such disappointment?
Part of the magic of the movie is that it treats the subgroups of a tight knit community with loving equity. Men, women, and children are all provided a vantage point illustrating beauty and weight. The lead of the film, Stan, played with refined delicacy by Henry Sanders, works at a slaughterhouse, tying up sheep by their hind legs and ending their lives. Before we know what he does, we know he is depressed as a result of the work, and every time we see him it seems he’s longing for another way to spend his days. He’s not sleeping. In the very first scene, Stan’s friend asks if he’s gone to church recently and if he’s thought about killing himself, presenting those as the only two possible routes to Stan’s redemption, or at least sanity.
There is a specter of violence all around him. Not only is he killing sheep, he is approached to participate in a possible murder. When offered a new job, his biggest desire, at a liquor store, he turns it down because they’re robbed too often and he doesn’t want to get shot. He resents being called poor but struggles everyday. Stan is a good father, a good husband, and a tireless provider. His distress is always palpable and yet he continues to work and provide, dutifully doing the right thing day after depressing day.
The scenes of the children are also shown with great care and respect. Burnett does not play down to the subject, instead opting to capture the intricate social hierarchies and moral complexity of childhood life. These moments are wrought with symbolism and familiarity. There were moments I was reminded of The Florida Project or other cinema vertiae-esque productions where the inner cogs at work in a child’s mind are captured without guidance or judgement. The world of the children is the spotlight by which we understand the motivations of their parents. The adults of the film work tirelessly to build a better future for their children, even as we witness them inhabiting the current one. The kids absorb the anxieties and love their family radiates around them. The scenes of the children elicit the full range of emotion experienced by the rest of the community, but with an enhanced freedom and innocence. They fight and throw rocks at each other — victims and perpetrators of small acts of violence in one scene, and then another, they soar like angels over the heads of the adults as they jump from roof to roof in the neighborhood. On one hand, they benefit from their youth and the possibility it contains. On the other, they are being reared in the same structures of the past generation, and are seemingly doomed to repeat their mistakes and experience their fates. When the slaughterhouse scene of the sheep being hung from their hind legs cuts to a headstand competition between the two children, their respective inversion and innocence punches the viewer through the screen.
The women of the film are also fully fledged in such a refreshing way I was almost brought to tears. They are complex and layered, full of various opinions and motivations and despondency. There are few speaking lines in the film, but the women speak a relatively high percentage of them. It passes the Bechdel test with flying colors and little effort. I love that one of the most threatening characters in the film is the female owner of the liquor store who lusts after Stan and offers him a job in a creepy gender flip of how I imagine Roger Allies offered women positions at Fox News. I love that there were sexually charged women, who unabashedly instigated sex and seemed to enjoy it. I love when Stan’s wife, Kaycee, catches a glimpse of her reflection in the pan lid and stops to observe the woman she’s become.
Burnett recognizes that the film is about community and that the perspective of women in that community could not be neglected.
Community is the heart and soul of the film. There are kaleidoscopic variations of community throughout the film, along gender lines, or age lines, or family lines. These connections justify all of the individual struggles. The scenes where the children hurl rocks at each other in a dust bowl setting show how they find joy in the midst of so little to celebrate. Burnett’s deft hand paints this community with loving and respectful detail, capturing all the reasons to despair and all of the reasons to grind and struggle in spite of all that bitterness. The song that was so important to the film it prevented its wide release, “This Bitter Earth” by Dinah Washington, is such a perfect accompaniment I’ll defer to her words instead of an inadequate recapturing of my own:
This bitter earth
Well, what a fruit it bears
What good is love
Mmh, that no one shares?
And if my life is like the dust
Ooh, that hides the glow of a rose
What good am I?
Heaven only knows
Oh, this bitter earth
Yes, can it be so cold?
Today you’re young
Too soon you’re old
But while a voice
Within me cries
I’m sure someone
May answer my call
And this bitter earth, ooh
May not, oh be so bitter after all