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Must-see movies / Killer of Sheep

Leaping boy from Killer of SheepA moment from a beau­ti­ful, riv­et­ing scene in Killer of Sheep. Pho­to: Mile­stone Films.

Killer of Sheep is direc­tor Charles Bur­nett's account of life in the LA neigh­bor­hood of Watts in the ear­ly 1970's. It began life as his senior the­sis at UCLA film school and until recent­ly it was nev­er seen out­side art hous­es and muse­ums. Despite all of that, it was among the first 50 films to declared nation­al trea­sures by the Library of Con­gress. I saw it ear­li­er this week at the Cas­tro, and it lived up the hype. Burnett's account of his moti­va­tions in mak­ing the film seems like a good place to start unpack­ing the stuff that makes it so unique:

I want­ed to tell a sto­ry about a man who was try­ing to hold on to some val­ues that were con­stant­ly being erod­ed by oth­er forces, by his plight in the com­mu­ni­ty, and the qual­i­ty of the job that he had. At the same time he want­ed to do right by his fam­i­ly. I didn't want to impose my val­ues on his sit­u­a­tion. I just want­ed to show his life. And I didn't want to resolve his sit­u­a­tion by impos­ing arti­fi­cial solu­tions like him becom­ing a doc­tor or a diplo­mat, when the real­i­ty is that most peo­ple don't get out. I want­ed to show that there is a pos­i­tive ele­ment to his life, and that is that he endures, he's accept­ed it. [From an excel­lent inter­view on Sens­es of Cin­e­ma]

To bring this sto­ry to life, he employs a style that seems impro­vi­sa­tion­al, as much doc­u­men­tary as Ital­ian neo­re­al­ism. But there's also some­thing very new and gen­uine and par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­can about it — iso­la­tion, crum­bling build­ings, explo­sions of cru­el­ty and anger, and the con­stant, chaot­ic motion of kids leap­ing across rooftops and crawl­ing under build­ings — com­bined, these things seem to evoke a very Amer­i­can way of poor, urban life.More than any­thing, the movie makes you won­der at its very improb­a­bil­i­ty: How in the world did he make that? Did he actu­al­ly plan those moments that seem gen­uine­ly serendip­i­tous? Maybe it's that the actors are untrained. The dia­logue seems fresh, sur­pris­ing and authen­tic even when it's forced. Maybe it's the pac­ing of the edit­ing. Scenes start abrupt­ly — chil­dren emerge from a hole, an entire neigh­bor­hood has assem­bled in a stair­well, kids hide behind a scrap of ply­wood. Most scenes also tend to end a cou­ple of sec­onds ear­ly, or linger a few sec­onds longer. Maybe it's the dia­logue — it's all mum­bles or hollers or growls, with jazz and blues tracks adding rhyth­mic, some­times hope­ful coun­ter­points to the imagery. Who knows? What's clear is that it speaks in a true, clear and unique voice. Go see it.

Dog face in Killer of SheepNo dia­logue. Dog mask. Chain link fence. Killer of Sheep. Pho­to: Mile­stone Films.