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Life and How To Live It: Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep

Life and How To Live It: Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep

Back in Brooklyn, and honestly, very little time for reflection since returning; Moved all of my belongings back into the apartment and used the opportunity to re-organize the place, leading to a several large bags of recycling, Salvation Army donations and some trash. I am still in the process of removing it all from the place, but it feels like a much-needed purge in many ways; A clean slate, tabula rasa, my own wash/rinse/repeat. I have a new desk (thanks Hub!) and it has forced me to reorganize my workspace here in the home office. This has been a boon if not to my productivity, then to my sense of it. I feel organized, focused and privileged to be doing what I love.

All of this transition was thrown into sharp focus when I headed over to the IFC Center yesterday morning to catch Charles Burnett’s unbelievable Killer of Sheep. In Florida, I had been reading reviews of the film with jealous eyes; Killer of Sheep is one of the films I have been longing to see ever since I caught a glimpse of it in Thom Andersen’s wonderful Los Angeles Plays Itself. After making the exhausting transition home to NYC, a movie was the perfect tonic for my own post-festival blues. I hopped the D train and got to it.

From the moment I slipped into my seat, I was absolutely mesmerized by the beauty of the print itself; Major kudos to Steven Soderbergh and the UCLA Film Archive for their efforts to restore the film as it looked gorgeous. Immediately, life in mid-1970’s Watts is brought into deep, resonant focus; A Greek chorus of children playing among the debris and rubble that make up the remnants of the Watts Riots of 1965 echo the abandonment of post-Katrina New Orleans. Here we are, a decade after Watts exploded, and the community remains mired in poverty and, more importantly, exhaustion. A profound sense of fatigue is palpable in every frame of Burnett’s film, each hustle and day of work leading only to misfortune. While the adults struggle, Burnett’s detached observation of children at play in unsafe, unsupervised environments immediately parallels the inability of the grown-ups in the community to make any waves at all; They are so deeply engaged in the struggle to hustle and survive that no one is able to look out for anyone else. These detachments run the gamut of human relationships, from father to child, husband to wife, neighbor to neighbor and, most profoundly, man to his work. When people in the film do finally connect, the sparks come flying off of the screen.

Two scenes in particular highlight Burnett’s dialectics of emotional detachment. The first moment comes during a conversation straight out of a Stanislavsky acting class where Stan (a phenomenal Henry Gayle Sanders) sits with a friend at the kitchen table. As they drink coffee in relative silence, Stan touches the cup to his cheek and is reminded of making love to a woman. Having witnessed Stan’s continued frustration of his own wife’s desire (played with deep feeling by the beautiful Kaycee Moore), including a stunning scene when Stan plays with his daughter and inspires sexual jealousy in his wife, watching him confess his sense of sexual longing is a dazzling moment.

A Perfect Storm In Tea Cup: Stan Confesses

The second and parallel moment, comes when Stan and his wife, wrapped in the shadow of a dirty window, slowly dance to Dinah Washington’s performance of The Bitter Earth. Her hands digging into his shirtless back, her sexual desire unfulfilled and her knowledge of the unbending reality of her situation as a wife and woman; This moment was transformative for me. As cinematic a definition of longing and regret as you are likely to ever see. The warm touch of a tea cup has replaced the physical reality of the wife, and the alienation of the family is complete.

Dancing With Myself. Together.

Of course, Burnett doesn’t judge these detachments, choosing instead to isolate human alienation as a systemic problem in an otherwise vibrant community. This decision, to make the real life hustle of Stan’s existence a condition of the absolute reality of his environment, is most famously highlighted by the scenes of Stan’s work in a sheep slaughterhouse. Each transition to the workplace is a visual rhyme, a physical paralleling of the lives of Stan’s neighbors with the sheep, ignorant of their fate, being lead to the slaughter. Of course, the slaughterhouse is Stan’s workplace, a place removed from the eternal stasis of his home life, but it is also the place that contributes heavily to that sense of stagnation. Stan works in the horror of the slaughterhouse, and he wants to escape it, but he has mouths to feed. Sure, the exhausting, mechanized order of the abbatoir provides an antithesis to the streets of Watts, symbolized by the hopeless conditions in which the children are forced to play. That said, the streets are the place where we find life. The genius of Killer of Sheep is found in its deeply moving portrayal of the streets and ‘real life’; The images of the community, of lives locked in helpless orbit, of survival in a world built upon struggle.

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