(09/11/07) – Killer of Sheep‘s enormous reputation is built upon its lack of traditional framework combined with a universal theme. Set in late 1970s Los Angeles, specifically the Watts district made famous by the riots, almost everyone is black. It is not remarked upon; it’s just how it is, in the same way that everyone’s money troubles are obvious, without anyone needing to talk about it. Both of these things are so unusual onscreen that Killer of Sheep maintains its freshness and unique perspective, 30 years after it was made.
The story of its production is almost as renowned as the film itself. It was shot on weekends on a very limited budget as the director, Charles Burnett’s masters thesis. Its use of very specific music for the soundtrack prevented it from receiving wide release, as their rights were unaffordable. But based on word of mouth built up gradually on the festival circuit, it was one of the first 50 (out of only 450) films to be preserved in America’s Library of Congress National Film Registry. The money for the music rights has finally been raised, and the film has been restored from 16mm to 35mm before being released on Region 1 DVD on 16 November.
So, what is under 30 years of hype? Killer of Sheep isn’t straightforward, as there’s no plot as such; instead we are integrated completely into the normal everyday life of its characters. Loosely structured around Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), whose job in a slaughterhouse provides the title, we follow him and his family, and the kids in their street, as they get by day-to-day. Everyone is tired, no one has much money, but everyone has friends and family around. There’s little individual characterisation in the film, but what comes across is a sense of both place and community, as if we live on their block. We see Stan and his wife (Kaycee Moore) having coffee with their friends, negotiating to buy a used car engine, or planning a picnic that goes wrong.
What the film does superbly is preserve moments in time. There are multiple long shots of kids playing in the streets – riding bikes, jumping across roofs, wrestling, throwing rocks. In watching Stan’s daughter (Angela Burnett, the director’s niece) silently finish her breakfast and carefully put all the dishes into the sink as her parents sit across the kitchen table, we learn more about their relationships – indeed, about life at this time in this part of Los Angeles – than any traditional plot could provide.
When the daughter leans against the backyard fence wearing a creepy dog mask, or when his wife makes up her face in the bathroom, they are perfectly framed within the shot, but there’s no sense of stasis. Instead the camera watches lovingly, moving deliberately to frame their world for our attention. There’s significantly more movement and cross-cutting than in Yasujiro Ozu’s films but Burnett brings the same sense of the perfect placement of the camera, and the same crisp black and white photography, with no wasted elements in its construction.
In the film’s most famous sequence, Stan and his wife dance, rotating so slowly it’s hardly dancing, as Dinah Washington sings "This Bitter Earth." She kisses and tries to caress him, but he keeps his distance and at the end of the song pushes her away and walks off. Later the same song is played over a sequence of Stan at work, hosing down the kill floor and shepherding a gormless flock of sheep. It is a bitter metaphor, but Killer of Sheep finds the beauty in the relentless ordinariness, making this a remarkable film.
The DVD also includes four of Burnett’s short films and two versions of his second feature, My Brother’s Wedding. Plans to release it worldwide are unconfirmed.