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KILLER OF SHEEP


Arkadin
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?You are not a child anymore. You soon will be a **** man. Start learning what life is about now son.?

 

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Killer of Sheep is that rare film that eschews plot and story lines for human experience. The movie opens in the past with a reprimand to young Stan and to us as well. We join Stan in the present, his wife and children in the seedy Watts section of Los Angeles. We will live with them for only eighty-three minutes, but in this short time, director Charles Burnett will present us with life in all its flawed beauty. What we learn is up to us.

 

The origins of KOS are well known. While studying at UCLA, Burnett began making ample use of the universities film lab and equipment. Dismayed by Blaxploitation film, which dealt with stereotypes (most of them criminal), Burnett drew inspiration from Neorealism and the work of Vittorio De Sica whose work explored the lives and emotions of the everyday man. Non-actors fill most of these roles in true De Sica fashion. Burnett had originally envisioned a three film series about Stan and his wife, but limited funds and equipment use (UCLA wanted their lab back) has only left us with a small portion of Burnett?s epic.

 

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Raising a family in deteriorating Watts, Sam is a man of much mileage who has long since run down. Despairing of personal hopes and dreams, he works at a nearby slaughterhouse where cool detachment has become his way of life. For Stan to admit his total desperation would be suicide. Instead, he is a sleepwalker doing the things he must to survive. Insulated and isolated, Stan is almost unreachable by those who love him.

 

Burnett got his start in photography and much of KOS is just that?pictures and music. We are observers of a certain kind of life here and perhaps the most touching thing about this film, is the fact that Burnett trusts us with his vision. We walk around his neighborhood taking in the sights, making up our own minds about what we see. Many of these wordless scenes can be viewed as small vignettes or parables that attempt to explain black life as a whole: A child laying under a train while another playfully steals his shoes, Kids jumping across rooftops heedless of danger, or Stan?s lonely dance with his wife as they are unable to connect physically or emotionally.

 

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If pictures tell stories, Burnett?s choice of music provides context and commentary on his social backdrop. Sheep hanging in the slaughterhouse suggest it is ?A Mean old World? (Little Walter) indeed. Paul Robeson?s ?That?s America To Me? underscores the harsh reality that the American Dream is only a fantasy for the impoverished. Earth Wind and Fire?s ?Reasons? is a record played by Stan?s child who sings along while Stan?s wife puts on makeup, arranges her hair and dress for her man who has long since lost interest. Burnett shows his genius here by cutting between the two rooms, showing us daughter and mother listening to the same song, which has a different meaning for each of them. When Stan?s wife looks in on their child, it?s a bittersweet moment. Here is a little girl singing along to an adult-themed song about love. When Stan?s wife appears in the frame, we wonder if she is the embodiment of what this child will become. Will her fate be the same as her mother?

 

Although the movie has its share of bleak moments, if Stan were merely a miserable man, this wouldn?t be much of a film. His refusal to admit his situation (?We ain?t poor! I give stuff to the Salvation Army!?) belies his inability to climb out of it. A man can live without many things, but honor is not one of them. There?s also humor in Stan?s son, who is always in trouble (he likes a little bit of cereal with his sugar and milk), Stan?s adventure buying the used motor, or the gang drinking in the windowless car. There is a tenderness as well. Stan loves his daughter. She is the only thing that can still touch his heart. When he plays with her, you know that beauty and love still exist for him?even in the darkest places of his soul.

 

Although Killer of Sheep owes much to De Sica and the Neorealist movement, it is fundamentally different in the fact that there is no crisis that changes Stan?s outlook. In Bicycle Thieves (1948) or Umberto D. (1953), crisis creates change. KOS provides no such easy outlets and we are left pondering hard questions with no easy answers. At the end of the film, Stan?s circumstances haven?t changed, but he has. His view is not one of acceptance or understanding, but determination.

 

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As Stan drives the sheep to the killing floor, we realize there is no hope for his situation. It's for his children that he does these things now, in hopes they will leap across the void that separates these separate American existences. Is he a defeated man? Perhaps. That?s a question Burnett wisely leaves in our hands, rather than moralizing. Stan might not have the stars to play with nor the moon to run away with, but he has some things money cannot achieve?namely his community and the love of his family.

 

When new life comes to the neighborhood, it grows at the personal cost and sacrifice of others to sustain and nurture it. We see this in the death of the sheep and perhaps the death of Stan?s hopes and aspirations, which are unfulfilled. Stan does have hope for his children, and this hope has returned him to the human race and drives him on. These things, like the sugar that sweetens his son?s cereal, temper his life and help him to see that perhaps his journey on this earth is not so bitter after all.

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Even though The Charles Burnett Collection is beside our TV, we watched *KILLER OF SHEEP* last night on TCM. I was choking back tears...of joy, of sadness, of exhilaration and amazement over the artistry...from start to finish.

 

Mrs. ChiO prefers Billy Woodbury's BLESS THEIR LITTLE HEARTS; her explanation is that "KILLER OF SHEEP is just too real." That observation is dead on. Seeing the This Bitter Earth dance of Stan and his wife -- he looking so world weary as to be emotionally dead, and she feeling (and wanting to arouse him to feeling) a passion so deep as to be terrifying -- is as an emotionally draining scene on film as I can think of.

 

Watching *KILLER OF SHEEP* last night for the fourth time, it became clear that Burnett has, just as my other favorite directors (Welles, Cassavetes, Fuller, Tourneur, Dreyer, Bresson) have, an attribute that makes his work stand out: respect -- respect for the characters and respect for the audience.

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Please allow me to cut and paste my comments from another thread onto here. Boy what a mistake I made even commenting on this wonderful film on that thread. I'm getting the real sense that some posters just love to throw bombs and then sit back and say: "it's just my opinion." I shall be using the IGNORE button more frequently.

 

"...I watched "Killer of Sheep" last night. I found Burnett's film to be a true diamond in the rough. (If you disagree out there...it's okay. I don't put you down for disagreeing). No there wasn't a narrative thread of a beginning-middle-end in his film. He let his camera linger. Hell, if you changed all these Black characters to white Italians during and just after WW II, you'd have thought the film was a product of the neo-Realism style of Rossellini or DeSica et al. I'm not saying the film didn't drag or was a little slow...but I found it to be a compelling slice of life and his imagery was wonderful. He didn't fill his film with words. Sometimes he had actions that spoke louder than words. I found myself vested in what happened to the folks in the film. I watched his other films last night as well; perhaps the acting wasn't up to snuff (having used non-professional people) but I felt Burnett had a sweet delicate touch with his direction."

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I checked out the thread. Those people are certainly entitled to their opinion, but personally, I think KOS is one of the best films ever made. Burnett's film deals with an America that many people cannot relate to, or would rather ignore, but for those who do get it, KILLER OF SHEEP is a wonderful film of a broken man making his way through a less than perfect world. I connect very much with Stan and his aspirations to live his life when all the cards are stacked against him.

 

To some people, movies should be a diversion from life. SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS (1942) is a great example of this. To others, film is a realistic view of everyday life, and KOS focuses on the latter. Both ideals are valid and should be seen on TCM.

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