Last night I saw Killer of Sheep. It is as close to perfect as a student film ever got. Adrian Tomine, author of the graphic novel collections Optic Nerve 1 & 2 and more recently Shortcomings, was at the Brattle signing books and they let him pick a film. He chose three, but only two were relevant to the plot - Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu and Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett. Burnett made Killer Of Sheep in the tradition of John Cassavettes' Shadows while he was a student at UCLA for 10,000 some odd dollars and without a single permit. To put this in perspective I was yelled at by a subway conductor when he saw I had a camera in my lap. Killer of Sheep scores major points for me because it is made by a first time director, a film student, who was able to make a movie with essentially no plot that still grips like a potboiler and get wholly naturalistic performances from all of his non-actors. Most interesting however was that he seems to have cribbed from Ozu's book, yet his feels like a more recognizably human film than anything Ozu ever did. The performances, expressions, and dialogue in Yasujiro Ozu movies were all very stylized, designed to pull you out of the world of humans to realize the universality of his themes and problems, despite their truly trivial nature. Burnett, while he does steal many of Ozu's compositions, segue-ways, and character types, makes his people feel more like people and less like Noh characters. Ozu's style got in the way of my enjoyment of his movies, but it only emerged after the second world war. I've not found any of his silents that bugged me particularly, but I do know that everything after he returned from trying to make films during WWII was a deeper meditation of human foibles than it seems at first glance and it apparently required a pace and style I can't get over. Nothing against Ozu, but I like it better when Bresson does the same thing.
Killer of Sheep follows Stan, a deeply unhappy, plain-looking family man (along with his unfulfilled but hopeful wife and his three children), as he wanders through life trying to distance himself from trouble, keeps up with his male neighbors, and sleepwalks through his day-job at an abattoir. The title comes from Stan's job and his sleeping habits. As someone else in the film remarks he doesn't count sheep, he kills them. Burnett, like Ozu, shows us, through compositional similarity (as in the beautiful shots of Stan's son hiding behind the large wooden board as he and his friends play games in a scrap yard and Stan's sunglass-concerned friend at his ex-girlfriend's house) and situational parallelisms that the problems of adults and children are essentially the same. Stan's son asks for money and gets rejected shortly before Stan tries to prove to his friend that he isn't poor by blowing his money on a car engine he doesn't need. This sort of money grubbing and would-be squandering is found in many of Ozu's watershed films (Good Morning, Early Summer). The shots of the children playing by the rusty train corpse look like they could have escaped from an early 50s Ozu film, the telephoto blending of kids in the foreground abstaining from the background action just as striking as anything by Ozu's peers Kenji Mizoguchi or Akira Kurosawa. There is also the concern with the activities of those geographically close to the characters who have little in common with the protagonist. The cast list is long and everyone has their part to play. Burnett makes use of the whole frame lingering on images of sheep and following tangential episodes as closely as we do those that concern Stan and his wife. Burnett broke the same rules that Ozu did 20 years earlier, but did it so much livelier and conscious that an audience would have to care about the action and people in his movie. That there is no real denouement to speak of is typical of Ozu films. They just sort of end. Here the victory is Stan admitting with his facial expression that he does love his wife and his distant behavior will pass. Subtly is the name of the game.
Killer of Sheep's use of old soul music and warped opera records was innovative, tonally appropriate and heartbreaking. It is also what kept the film in limbo in UCLA's thesis vault for 30 years. It never saw commercial release until Burnett could raise the $150,000 to pay for the rights to the songs. It was, in the end, worth it. The most beautiful part of Killer of Sheep comes at about the halfway mark when a shirtless Stan and his wife dance in their living room to a record. Stan's wife moves her hands over his chest, suggesting that perhaps they will break their dry-spell and have sex. Next to nothing happens but it's mesmerizing. Those static shots of the sheep running around their pen, the goats worked into a frenzy, compositionally identical to the children leaping over the roofs of buildings; same story. The movie is as successful with its use of offbeat humour as it is with its symmetrical make-up and neat plot structure. Darjeeling Limited worked in a similar way, but Killer of Sheep has none of Wes Anderson's vices and its devastatingly simple presentation helps its story catch you off guard. Hilarious character map; offbeat family drama; round-about kid's movie; the first proper American tribute to Ozu; realistic portrait of Los Angeles' suburb life; a truly original and charming movie that will remain lost to too many people? It's fair to pick a few.
30 years is a long time for a work of art to go unnoticed, especially when its creator has been creating ever since. Thank god for the likes of Steve Buscemi and The Criterion Collection. That this had gone unwatched for 30 years over rights issues is a fucking insult. It's that kind of can-don't attitude that produced the movie; a resigned malaise worn on every face.