05 February, 2009

Movie Review: Killer of Sheep (1977)

So I've committed to seeing and writing about all of the 1000 films on the TSPDT? list, which means I eventually have to say a few words about Charles Burnett's extremely low budget 1977 film Killer of Sheep, which is #326 on the list. I watched it a couple weeks ago and have been hoping that some inspiration would come to me in the way of insightful remarks about this film's meaning and intent.

But really, I haven't got much. It's a good film with beautiful cinematography and an evocative soundtrack, but it's the equivalent of looking through some dead stranger's vintage family photo album at an abandoned thrift shop. The film follows an impoverished Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his life in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles, California, occasionally focusing on his family members, children, neighbors, and various other people. There is no plot line, except an overall yearning to rise out of the gutter. Stan is offered various unappealing and unsuccessful opportunities from people who are no less impoverished than he is. Two dapper robbers give him a scoop, only to be chased away by his wife. An obese, white liquor store owner offers him a job and a disgusting sexual proposition. A friend goes in on a car engine purchase with him; they labor out the apartment, down the stairs, and to the curb carrying the engine, only to have it fall out of the bed of the truck and break.

Killer of Sheep is a portrait of life on the brink of devastation. Yet it is a tenacious life, able to persist indefinitely, teetering on the precipice yet never falling off. Like Wile E. Coyote standing on air for as long as he doesn't look down. We begin to realize that we from outside see more of how bleak his life is than he does--that from within the murkiness obscures itself. At one point he compares himself favorably to someone in an even worse situation, noting that he donates to the Salvation Army and therefore can't possibly be that poor: "You want to see somebody that’s poor, now, you go around and look at Walter’s. Now they be sitting over an oven with nothing but a coat on, and sitting around rubbing their knees, all day eating nothing but wild greens picked out of a vacant lot. No, that ain’t me and damn sure won’t be." Of course, from a third-person perspective, with no consideration for pride and personal opinions, their situations seem very similar. That might not be him today, but it damn sure might be tomorrow.

And so we see the moments of scrabbled happiness amongst the dirt: toyless children hurling stones and broken concrete for fun, three kids piled onto one bicycle, a teenager adding a pound of sugar to a bowl of cereal, two exhausted lovers sharing a sweaty slow dance to Dinah Washington, full of steamy sexual energy but too tired to do much about it. And the disappointments build up infinitely--broken down cars, kitchens in disrepair, a bloody job as a meat processor that involves ripping the skin and wool off of still live sheep. When at the end Stan's wife reveals that she's pregnant again, it's hard to know which category to check it off under--the joy of a new life or the financial burden of another mouth to feed.

It's a good movie, and I guess I had more to write about it than I suspected. In many ways it reminds me of the 1999 Scottish film Ratcatcher, which isn't on the list yet but probably will be in a future year's update. Both are bleak, haunted, and uneventful yet beautiful and realistic. There's not much hope in either, and the promise that life will keep going on seems more like an insult than a reward.

Killer of Sheep
d/w: Charles Burnett
(Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore)
TSPDT? #326

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