15 April 2007 | za-andres
An observatory masterpiece
Around the seventies, when films like Annie Hall, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Saturday Night Fever ruled the age, Charles Burnett silently crafted Killer of Sheep, his thesis film for UCLA. Thirty years it has eluded usthat is, until now. The result, although aging those thirty-years, is a masterpiece; an authentic and one of a kind piece of raw American poetry that simply and silently observes life in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles.
An unshakable and insightful study of citizens living right above the poverty level, Killer of Sheep is both open-ended and observatory. The magnificent fly-on-the-wall observes the life of a slaughterhouse worker, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who grapples daily with poverty, misbehaving children, and the allure of violence. Stan is a simple guy, diligent, smart, and fatigued. He has a family including two kids, both entirely the opposite of the other. Stan's daughter (Angela Burnett, the director's childone of the most preternaturally talented performers I have ever seen) is the playful and learning type, while the otherhis sonis never home, discourteous, and always getting himself into trouble. The characterization in Killer of Sheep is both extraordinarily untouched, but it is meticulously observed and felt; every single characteralthough not all are importanthas an underlying purpose and reason for being where they are.
The camera work in Killer of Sheep, much like the film itself, is perfect, like if one could be observing the town through his/her DV camcorder. Shooting in 16 millimeter and operating it himself, Burnett's camera observes everything, and is seemingly everywhere. Everything is important too, because every close-up and tracking shot only brings us closer to the undistinguished characters themselves; the more the camera observes, the more one feels closer to them.
Burnett shot Killer of Sheep over a series of weekends on a shoestring budget of just under $20,000, using friends and relatives as actors. This needn't be a reason to demean the film; if anything, one must take it as a sheer pleasure: the acting of his family members essentially makes the film beautiful sans outside reason, making it truly fathomable. Yet again, Burnett's camera simply observes; much like the Italian neo-realism age, Killer of Sheep's milieu speaks for itselfone could even call it American neo-realism.
At its core, Killer of Sheep is masterfully comprised of evident economic denial, hidden desire, and pure living; in other words: untainted life. There are many scenes in Killer of Sheep that demonstrate this; the most memorable demonstrating the cruelty of Stan's son towards his sister: while Stan drinks coffee at his table with a neighbor, his son aggressively asks his daughter where his bee-bee gun is. The daughter, wearing an unforgettable dog mask, shrugs. The response from the brother is, of course, hurting her. Stan gets up and starts chasing the son; he's already out the door.
In 1990, Burnett's opus magnum was declared a national treasure by Congress. 17 years later, it has finally gotten a spot on the big screen, a DVD release date also due for later in the year. Easily one of the finest observational films ever made, Killer of Sheep more than lives up to its official designation as a national treasure: it lives up to life itself.