Killer of Sheep is a study of social paralysis in South Central Los Angeles in the years following the Watts riots. The work of a UCLA grad student named Charles Burnett, the film was shot in Watts in the early 1970s and completed a few years later. But despite its enormous critical reputation, the film was never released in theaters, partly because Burnett didn't clear the rights to his extensive pop-music score, which includes Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, and Dinah Washington. The music rights secured and the film fully restored, Killer of Sheep made its long-overdue theatrical debut in March. It shows in Cleveland for the first time this weekend.
Killer of Sheep is an urban pastoral -- an episodic series of scenes that are sweet, sardonic, deeply sad, and very funny. It's a movie of enigmatic antics, odd juxtapositions, disorienting close-ups, and visual gags -- as when a guy sitting in a car's front seat reaches through the nonexistent windshield to retrieve a beer perched on the hood.
Even before the opening titles, the movie makes clear that life (or maybe history) is apt to hit you upside your head. Depressed, dreamy, and always worried-looking, Stan (Henry G. Sanders) works in a slaughterhouse. He has two kids and a pretty wife (Kaycee Moore) who loves him, but he's curiously unresponsive. He doesn't smile, has trouble sleeping, and, for much of the movie, wanders impassively from one scene to another.
On one hand, Stan's neighborhood is a wasteland. On the other, it's filled with vitality -- or at least everyday madness. People scowl and scrap their way through ramshackle lives; in one scene, two guys dart onscreen lugging a stolen TV. The verbal jousting is often superb. (The zesty vernacular includes ample use of the n-word.) When neighborhood jivesters try to bring Stan in on their criminal exploits, he's stubbornly uninterested. "I'm not poor," he insists. "I give away things to the Salvation Army sometimes."
Stan is just about the only character in the movie who has a job. It's the notion of that job -- even more than the nature of it -- that seems to oppress him. He's shown at work, hosing down the slaughterhouse's killing floor. Stan's job brings him into intimate contact with the fate of all living things. The only time he smiles -- or nearly smiles -- is when he's chasing those sheep, who have dimly realized what's in store for them.
Burnett's thesis project originally screened at museums and underground showcases. When it opened in New York in November 1978, as part of the Whitney Museum's ongoing New American Filmmakers series, The New York Times called it a study in "monotony and alienation," and scored the filmmaker's "arty detachment."
Perhaps when someone writes the history of American independent cinema, it will be explained how Killer of Sheep came to be considered not just a good but a great movie. While fresh and observational 30 years ago, it seems even more universal now.
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