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.