Thursday, May 17


Adam Hartzell on Killer of Sheep

There are a lot of options for Frisco cinephiles this week. The Mission Creek Music/Film Festival wraps up Sunday with events at Artists' Television Access and the Lab. Film Night in the Park starts its summertime video series this Saturday with the Graduate in Washington Square Park. Nanook of the North plays the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum the same night. Naked Lunch plays as a midnight movie Friday and Saturday at the Clay. Both parts of Olympia screen at SFMOMA on Sunday (and again the following Sunday). You can follow along with some of the current Hollywood selections at the Cannes Film Festival by checking out Zodiac at the Red Vic Friday and Saturday, and Grindhouse all week at the theatre it was seemingly just about made for, the Parkway. And the Film on Film Foundation will present 16mm prints of Venom and Eternity and Christopher MacClaine's The End at the Roxie on Wednesday, May 23rd. That's just a sampling of the cinematic opportunities here; check my sidebar for more.

But no matter how many of the above events you attend, any self-respecting follower of non-mainstream cinema should have as the top priority of the week at least one screening of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, playing May 18-24 at the Rafael, Shattuck and Castro Theatre in beautiful new 35mm prints. Before this year it had only been seen on 16mm prints, and reportedly they were often beat-up and scratchy ones at that. Still, the film made a strong impression on just about anybody who saw it. When Adam Hartzell, who occasionally contributes to Hell on Frisco Bay when he's not immersed in Korean cinema, heard the film was coming to town he immediately offered to write on it. Here's his piece:
Starting this weekend at the Castro Theatre, through the tireless efforts of many unsung individuals, San Franciscans will have the opportunity to see a film that has been kept from us for way too long. Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep will finally see the release it has deserved for many years, roughly 30 years after it was completed. Killer of Sheep was the culmination of Burnett's graduate work at UCLA. My understanding is that it has taken this long for it to receive its release because the film has been locked up in copyright wranglings regarding the jazz numbers used on the soundtrack. So those of us who have seen it have, perhaps, been involved in questionable practices. But we engage in such ambiguous practices not out of lawlessness, but out of strong interests in cultural documents that present to us moments of transcendence.

My only screening of this film was in April 2001 thanks to Joel Shepard bringing Charles Burnett to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (When Burnett was brought to the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley a few years later, they weren’t able to show Killer of Sheep due to the copyright issues. Why YBCA could screen it and PFA couldn’t, I don’t know. I’m guessing it has something to do with where the films legal matters were at the time of each screening.) Although I am always open to how my factual memory fails me, I feel quite confident in my emotional memory. I recall being completely captivated by this black and white homage to the everyday life of African-Americans in South Central Los Angeles.

Since Killer of Sheep was completed while Burnett was at university, Burnett used non-professional actors. In spite of this, or because of this, I found the film truly visionary. There is a deep sadness in the faces of many in this film, particularly the father who works in a slaughterhouse. But there is never pity. The sadness is clearly a part of the human condition, showing the working class without the buffer of buffoonery. Burnett says that he was reacting somewhat to the primary portrayals of blacks in cinema of the time, the caricatures of blaxploitation and the black characters that spoke more to a white community than to his own. Mind you, there is some humor and playfulness in the film, such as the refreshingly commonplace scene of a large appliance being moved around the house. And those who've seen David Gordon Green's debut film, George Washington, will experience the dissonance of allusion out of order caused by discovering that Green's masking of one of the children in his film was clearly a reference to Burnett's definitive work. But the film's main intent is human dignity for everyday people.

As demonstrated above, Killer of Sheep is often positioned against the dominant media portrayals of African-Americans at the time. But binaries and other oppositional frames are too easy. Christine Acham demonstrates the need to get beyond these oppositional frames in her book Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power. She shows that even much maligned TV shows such as Julia (1968-71) and Good Times (1974-79) had their moments of resistant discourse if not through the shows but through what Robin D.G. Kelley calls "hidden transcripts", where the respective lead actresses of those shows, Diahann Carroll and Esther Rolle, sought agency within the counter-narratives permitted in mainstream magazines when they found they couldn't push the shows in the directions they desired. What Burnett accomplishes with this film is what many African-Americans maneuvering through the restrictive environments of movie and TV screens of the time hoped to negotiate with their crafts, to display their community with the deep respect denied them for so long. Not many were able to create the complete visions they aspired towards since much of the production and direction was outside their full control. Burnett accomplished what he did because he was outside the industry through the productive and supportive space of academia, where, at least during the era when Burnett attended, making money from ones academic projects wasn’t a concern. Then his art ran into the commodification of another art form and his work was suppressed for a few decades.

But it's finally here for us to enjoy free of ethical dilemmas. Persistence pays off. Just like many of us were anxious with anticipation to finally see Tears of a Black Tiger, a very different film than Killer of Sheep, earlier this year after its sentence to release-limbo, the long-term investments many have made in this work will pay off with experiential dividends. (Interestingly, both these films were released from release-limbo the very same year that the Catholic Church abolishes the whole theological concept of the "State of Limbo".) Yes, I have many more American films to see, but I'm confident Killer of Sheep will maintain its rightful place in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry as one of the greatest American films ever made.

Nicely done, Adam. I'm still processing my own thoughts on the film, but that didn't stop me from blogging about it yesterday anyway.

The weird thing is I'd seen it years ago in a film class, and have no idea how - whether it was a bootleg, a VHS dub or what - just that I'd seen it. But that was not the same experience as seeing this new print, which looks as it should have looked when he first completed it. Anyway... thanks. Craig
Thanks for stopping by, Craig. And thanks for the shoutout in your piece at your blog. I'm anxious to see the new print tomorrow and perhaps again during the week. - Adam

This Sunday, I had the opportunity (luxury?) of seeing this film twice.

Between screenings this occurred to me: when this film was shot, 1972/73, the minimum was still less than $2.00. If the slaughterhouse was non-union, $15.00 was probably a day's wage for Stan.

Engine blocks and hope, two very heavy but fragile things.
Thanks for bringing that analysis. Class is still the unspoken issue in America, and that wage-awareness helps further underscore the general mood of the film. And excellent illumination of the engine as metaphor as well.
I want to see it again before I sit down to write about it but god-daggit I don't know when I will be able to.
In light of the fact that a proper release of "Killer of Sheep" was held up due to music rights issues, is it too wishful to want to have a soundtrack cd? I suppose, something like it can be cleverly assembled on i tunes.

Some random musical observations on "K o S":

Mrs. Stan gorgeously whistling "Mood Indigo", more interesting since she most understands the the melancholia he is suffering.

A passing reference to Johnny Ace:"Going out like Johnny Ace". An R&B singer who shot himself during a backstage game of Russian Roulette in 1954. Earlier in the same scene, Stan's insomnia is discussed as possibly a result of guilt, rather than depression. Is the fact that an example of "suicide" that came first to them was an accidental one of a famous person, so many years back, a way the characters distance themselves from the emotional carnage? Or did I just want an excuse to post about Johnny Ace?

Playing dolls beside the little portable record player? Was someone channelling Miriam's childhood?

La Julie pointed out the following: When "The House I Live in" was made into a soundie with Frank Sinatra by RKO, the lyric was changed to remove references to race. The plot of the short is that Francis Albert sees some kids beating up a Jewish boy, gives them a lecture about how Americans have to unite, no matter what our differences are. Very touching, but then he points out that this is super important now since we are fighting the "Jap menace" (with segregated armed forces).

But don't trust my memory!:

Abel Meeropol, the author of this song, as well as the anti-lynching "Strange Fruit", was said to have required removal from the theater when he heard this change. Meeropol, who adopted the boys left behind by the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, is a whole other story, which someone made into a documentary, which is how I saw the soundie

Of course, "K o S" features the original lyric sung by Paul Robeson. I'm sorry it took nearly thirty years, but I'm glad they didn't have to change a "note" of this film.
It was so great to see this on the big Castro screen tonight. It looks like the film is sticking around for another week- at the Shattuck in Berkeley only.

In other news, the Castro's screening of the Outlaw Josey Wales on Tuesday has been cancelled, and replaced with a showing of High Plains Drifter. This disappoints me because I've wanted to see the Outlaw Josey Wales on the big screen for a long time (since I missed my last chance back at the 2001 SFIFF), but High Plains Drifter is a good substitute, as I don't think it's been shown in Frisco since 2001 either. I caught it on a trip to Boston a couple years ago.

Back to Killer of Sheep. My friend thought I was overstepping my role as viewer to even speculate on it, but the can of peaches had me wondering this time. Where/how did Stan get it? I thought I heard him say something like "she gave me these peaches" but he may have been more specific and I just didn't catch it. Are we to assume that "she" is the shopkeeper who offered him an "opportunity" to work for her earlier in the film?

Obviously not a crucial point in this film filled with beautiful ambiguities and subtleties, but on my mind right now.

As for a soundtrack release, I dunno, but check this link, courtesy Zach Campbell via Girish Shambu.
Yeah, I pretty much have to have a lot more Louis Armstrong records.

Stan got the peaches from someone called Sally or Old Sally. When he first comes up to the car, he says that Sally gave him $5.00 for cleaning out the back of the shed, if memory serves.

Stan gives a dollar or two from his windfall to his partner in the engine debacle, and then he rolls up his sleeves. It's a wonderful moment.

I'm pretty sure it's not the liquor store proprietress, but I would not bet any interesting sums of cash on it. Something he about the way he spoke of Sally made me feel she was an older black woman, the sort of lady that everyone has known since they were tiny and they all look out for. In my mind, that was why he seemed embarrassed (sheepish?) about the peaches.

In the trailer, the last lines we hear are, "Can't you see the man's been hurt?" How surprising it was to see the film and hear the lines refering to a child of about 9 or 10. I count at least four instances where boys are seen crying, which was striking for me.

This week I manged to hear Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth" more than twice as often as I heard "Stairway to Heaven", so I'm well pleased. Last night's audience was such a great one. The right audience can show you something about a movie, and last night I was reminded of the essential joy in "Killer of Sheep". They made another viewing of a great film well worth it.

I've posted a lot about this film, but it has really taken up a spot in my heart and my mind! Bravo! I hope none of this has seemed like turf grab, especially the Abel Meeropol stuff.
Miriam, I want my comments sections to be open turf for any and all expressions other than spam attacks or other real nastiness. I suspect Adam as guest host would agree.

Yeah, there's something about the last showing of a film in its week-long showing at the Castro. Whether they've already watched the film once or twice, fallen in love with it and are coming back for one last taste, or have been meaning to go and know that this is their final opportunity for that big screen to overwhelm them, people seem particularly receptive.

In other words, mark your calendar for the July 5th screening of Mala Noche and the August 23 showing of Les Doulos.
Oh, at last, the secret of Castro Theatre perfection.

Did Mrs. Stan rock that housecoat, or what?
I've paused from slapping myself for missing "Killer of Sheep" at the Atlanta Film Festival last month. I just didn't seem to be in the mood at the time and let it slip by...

I'm hoping that it gets a week or two engagement here, as it was a BIG HIT at the fest!
miriam - I agree with Brian that your comments aren't tangential at all. The music, along with being a big reason for its delayed release, is a big part of the film's experience.

jay - i would assume this film would find its way to Atlanta soon, so hopefully your wait will be well worth it like mine.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?