Reviews and notes
TIME 10 Best Movies 2007
3. Killer of Sheep
Completed in 1977 but fully released only this year, Charles Burnett's haunting document of a slaughterhouse worker and his family is surely the finest film about black experience.
- Richard Corless, TIME, 24 December 2007.
Virtually since its initial release, this legendary independent African-American feature has been almost impossible to see, consigned to undeserved obscurity by its anti-commercial nature and a prolonged wrangle over music rights. The offending soundtrack is one of Killer of Sheep
's great strengths. It marshalls the forces of Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Paul Robeson, Elmore James, George Gershwin and more to heighten the everyday lives of Stan and his family, struggling to get along in suburban Los Angeles in the late 1970s.
The film is sui generis
. The most frequently cited reference points are the heightened naturalism of John Cassavetes and the grittiness of Italian neorealism, but neither rings particularly true. Charles Burnett's observational, anti-dramatic style seems much closer to direct cinema, the strand of fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking pioneered in the 1960s by such filmmakers as D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers, than to any established fiction filmmaking tradition. And yet there's also an elusive core of soaring poetry. Those who saw only the heavy influence of Terrence Malick on David Gordon Green's first feature George Washington
(screened at the Film Festival in 2001) may be surprised to see just how closely it cleaves to the example of this film. And Burnett has other disciples among contemporary American independents, not least Steven Soderbergh, who was instrumental in getting the music rights cleared.
The story is strategically slight. Stan spends his days in a slaughterhouse and his nights and weekends with his family and friends. Burnett intersperses casually observed actuality with casually delivered dramatic interludes, but the latter never amount to much. An extended quest for a new engine, the film's most structured episode, amounts to little more than a shaggy dog story, and the momentary prospect of a hit seems inserted only to accentuate the vast distance between Killer of Sheep
and the blaxploitation products of the time.
The pace is leisurely and the content lyrical and often mysterious, with an absence of conventional establishing shots and images framed or blocked to provide only a partial view of characters or action. It's a very rare film in which the world of children is given equal weight to that of adults, and this one offers the even rarer spectacle of perfectly ordinary lives observed not just with respect but with a sense of wonder and discovery.
- Andrew Langridge, Wellington Film Festival, 2007.
Killer of Sheep
was shot on location in Watts in a series of weekends on a budget of less than $10,000, most of which was grant money. Finished in 1977 and shown sporadically, its reputation grew and grew until it won a prize at the 1981 Berlin International Film Festival.
Since then, the Library of Congress has declared it a national treasure as one of the first fifty on the National Film Registry and the National Society of Film Critics selected it as one of the "100 Essential Films" of all time. However, due to the expense of the music rights, the film was never shown theatrically or made available on video. It has only been seen on poor quality 16mm prints at few and far between museum and festival showings.
Now, thirty years after its debut, the new 35mm print of Killer of Sheep
, brilliantly restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive, is ready for its long-awaited international release.
- Milestone Films, 2007.
Review by Brannavan Gnanalingham, Lumiere Reader, 1 July 2007.
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