Thursday, April 12, 2007

Killer of Sheep

Wow.

Nothing prepared me for the ferocity, the liveliness, the wall-to-wall richness. I was expecting something good, something special, but I wasn't expecting this.

Did I say "wall-to-wall richness"? Well, scratch that--because so many of the shots in Killer of Sheep (as in Colossal Youth, a film it resembles in a lot of ways) are composed and framed so as to usually show a hint of an adjoining space, not numbered and containable walls--characters seen through a doorway so that you can see the edges of white walls in the foreground; a messy room in the background; a stairwell; a neighbor's back yard; almost always there is an intimation of something else, the camera head-on and attuned to the horizontal network of space, the connectedness of the social universe, of this portrayed community; few shots of just people framed against a wall or the ground or the sky. Think it's all no big deal? Then consider too the use of sound in the film, which also links images, grabs them together and forces the images sometimes into a contemplation of a sound in a stream, like the amazing out-of-nowhere sequence (210% inspired poetry) where the mother (Stan's wife) is, I think, fixing herself up while her daughter sits on the floor (was it in a bathroom? was there a tub behind her?) and listens to music, singing along to it, her arms outstretched, the music uniting the spaces of the mother and daughter until the two finally interact ... my jaw kept dropping at moments like this, I kept craning my neck forward because I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

And it all seems so effortless. No wonder what little I'd always heard about the film (I never tried to research it, waiting for the chance to see it screened first) seemed to leave little impression ... how do you put into words everything this film does? The first few minutes of the film, I was thinking, "OK, this is a really interesting application of certain Italian neorealist strategies to a different milieu." A few minutes later I was convinced that this had to be one of the most complex, deceptively simple, films that I've ever seen. This film (like Rossellini) goes way beyond any sort of program of realism, neorealism, social realism ... but formal/political strategies historically categorized or read as forms of realism are still just subsumed by the broader vision of life, of community and experience, this film presents. I have to revisit To Sleep with Anger, which is great, but no doubt I missed a ton of information in my only viewing, years ago. I have to rummage through my video collection and finally watch the few other Burnett titles I've got. Is Burnett really, contra Spike Lee, the "real" Great Black American Filmmaker? I don't know. (I do know that I haven't seen a Lee film that, to me, approaches this one by Burnett.) But we don't really need to hold contests, give awards, and enshrine father figures in order to appreciate this expression, this labor of love ...

When my friend and I got out of the theater we just gasped at each other, eyes wide.

I could go on and on, without saying much of anything. Maybe I'll be able to get into this film, the reasons for its richness, its political significance, more in the future. I don't even know. Anyway, the restored film is very likely coming to a theater near you (in America, at least) if it hasn't already. And it's supposed to come out on DVD later. See it.

10 comments:

Matthew said...

No-one inspires me like you do when you're impassioned about something, Zach. Fantastic post.

Ignatius Vishnevetsky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ignatius Vishnevetsky said...

I deleted my comment because I thought it didn't say much, but then decided to say something anyway. The Internet is a perfect vehicle for the indecisive, though Blogger makes us pay for our indecisiveness with its "comment deleted" messages.

I've seen the trailer and the print looking fantastic. I haven't seen the film, though I've seen enough Burnett to be utterly in love with him.
Have you seen any of his TV work? I've seen Nightjohn--the film he made for the Disney Channel. And a little while back, a local museum showed a documentary he made about Nat Turner, but I had to miss the screening. Have you seen work by any of those other "Los Angeles school" filmmakers, like Billy Woodberry? His only film is supposed to be coming to DVD, too and I believe it's being put out by the same company as KILLER OF SHEEP.

And it's funny that you mention him in comparison to Lee--I'm watching WHEN THE LEVEES BROKE tonight. Unsure as to what I think of it yet--just taking a break after finishing the first disc. Works this big, you've got to look at them from a distance, wait a few days until they sink in. It's like judging architecture; you almost have to live around it to formulate an opinion.

Ignatius Vishnevetsky said...

Not as much "funny" as "coincidental," come to think of it.

Noel Vera said...

It's awe-inspiring work, Zach, and all the more impressive / frustrating because, as you put it, it's so hard to express in words. Don't remember who said it (maybe Mr. Rosenbaum), but if Burnett worked in French or German, he'd be a revered figure by now...

I love moments like the kids leaping across rooftops--Burnett just plunks the shot there, without explanation, and you're left puzzling out what the hell is happening. Not to mention the scuffling that happens in the dirt excuse for a playground. And that vignette with the car engine is just heartbreaking--all the more because you see it happen a mile away (the very angle of the camera makes you think it'll tip over), and--again without fuss or comment--the quick shot of the man's face as he looks at the ruin at his feet.

I've been meaning to write about To Sleep With Anger too, practically forever. I like Spike, I like his recent work, but no, I really, really don't think he comes even close to what Burnett's been doing.

Oh, and his doc on Nat Turner is amazing, simply amazing--does more than blow away what Styron was trying to do, it encapsulates him--puts him in context of our developing undertanding of the man.

Tuwa said...

Fantastic writeup; you've piqued my interest.

Ryan B. said...

Sounds great, and it will actually be screened down here! Looking forward to it.

celinejulie said...

I saw TO SLEEP WITH ANGER (1990) a few years ago, and I like the opening scene very much. I also think Danny Glover is great in TO SLEEP WITH ANGER, and he should get a great role like in this film more often. My friends and I think he is the one who should be nominated for an Oscar from DREAMGIRLS, instead of Eddie Murphy.

Noel Vera said...

I could agree with that. I do think To Sleep is the apex of Danny's performing career to date, and his finest achievement overall (he also helped get it financed, if I remember right).

Zach Campbell said...

I hope you all who haven't seen the film get a chance to soon, and if I've piqued or intensified anyone's curiosity, then I'm thrilled.

Ignatius, I'm not very familiar with Burnett's work as a whole. (As for Billy Woodberry, fuhgeddaboudit. I haven't seen a thing. But I hope to remedy this in the near future.)

And Danny Glover is indeed great in To Sleep with Anger ...