Review: Burnett’s neo-realistic “Killer of Sheep” is timely and timeless.

In today’s flash-in-the-pan film environment where a perfectly-timed explosion, laugh, or shout punctuates a non-existent narrative, it’s very rare that I am floored by a film. Yes, I find every film to have a redeeming quality, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that something is good.

When I do find something good, that is worthy of sharing, I make it a point to do so.

That’s why when a friend mentioned a screening of Charles Burnett’s 1978 film, Killer of Sheep and ‘film school’ in the same fell swoop I knew I had to see this.

With a budget of $10,000 and a skeleton crew, Burnett wrote, directed, produced, shot, and edited what would become his master’s thesis film for the UCLA film program.

The interesting thing about Sheep is that the narrative is a series of vignettes focused on the characters and their environments.  The film nearly felt non-narrative, and yet, the vignettes work together forming a neo-realistic theme of a father trying to make a better life for his kids.

Set in the Watts area of Los Angeles, Stan, his wife and two kids are barely making ends meet.  Stan works long hours in a slaughterhouse.  Rather than turning to a life of petty crime, it’s the best work that he can find.  Stan has trouble sleeping and tries to evade his wife, while raising a son who would rather be out with his friends, getting in to trouble and a daughter who is also vying for his attention. With the help of his friend Bracy, Stan tries to buy an engine so that they can get a more reliable car.  They eventually end up worse off than they started.

Other than Stan and Bracy, Burnett did not name the main characters, but one doesn’t mind this.  He gave each of his characters a visceral richness that transcended the need for names.

Burnett shot the entire film on 16mm Black & White film in the Academy aspect ratio.  His use of close-ups was jarring at times, and at others, certain images fell partially out of frame.  Despite this, he created an intimacy out of the despair that Stan must’ve felt as he was struggling for a better life.  This dichotomy was never more prescient than during a dance scene between Stan and his wife.   In that scene, his wife was trying to be intimate while you could clearly see that Stan was focusing his attention elsewhere.

The completed film garnered a number of awards and many accolades when it was screened in 1978 at the Berlin and Toronto film festivals.  It did not receive a wide release due to complications in securing the rights to the 22 songs Burnett included in the film.

It sat for 30 years as a result.

In 2007, the UCLA Film and Television Archives and Milestone Films restored the 16mm prints and transferred them over to 35mm.  The restoration was completed due in part to a donation from Steven Soderbergh, who also paid the $150,000 to license the soundtrack.

Officially released on March 30, 2007 in select US and Canadian cinemas, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is an austere portrait of someone who wants to do better for himself and his family, and yet he is so utterly unable to alter his life.

While I can’t say that Stan’s life worked out for the better, I can say that this neo-realist portrait is something that will stick with me forever.  The film appeared on several critics’ top ten lists of 2007; it has been inducted into the United States Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1990, and was chosen by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 Essential Films.

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