Sunday, September 30, 2007

Killer of Sheep (1977, Charles Burnett)

After I saw this for the second time in two days, I was leaving the theatre and the two douchebags leaving behind me complained about how it sucked because "it didn't have a plot." Yes, and? Killer of Sheep isn't a plot movie, but that's why it's a masterpiece, I think. It's a portrait of lives from which there is no escape- with a plot there has to be resolution, and resolution would magically clear up the troubles from which Burnett's characters suffer. It's the difference between the games the kids in the film play and the lives of their parents. When something happens to a kid, he'll walk away, cry it out, and then continue like nothing happened- problem resolved. But the problems facing the adults linger. The gangsters who try to bring Stan in on a crime will eventually be replaced by other gangsters, the white woman who runs the liquor store will keep trying to sweet-talk him into working for her (and screwing her on the side). And Stan's bone-deep weariness won't subside, despite his wife's hopes that it will. I didn't get a good look at the naysaying cheesedicks behind me, but when they complained that Killer of Sheep "didn't have any redeeming value," I quickly pegged them as spoiled rich kids. Anyone who has ever worked paycheck to paycheck, or has despaired that life seems like nothing but a long string of jobs interrupted occasionally by sleep, or has simply gazed at a loved one and wanted to cheer him but had no idea how, will find something in Killer of Sheep that speaks to them, no matter what color he is. And all that aside, Burnett gives us one small, perfect moment after another. Like Stan's daughter singing along with Earth Wind and Fire's "Reasons" and stumbling through the words until she gets to the "la la la" interlude, which she sings with the utmost confidence. Or Bracy berating Eugene in rhyme for getting a flat during a road trip to the track, but running out of words to rhyme: "you need to have a spare/but you's a square/that's why you ain't got no spare." Or the rare instance of Stan smiling in the film, when he jokingly explains to his daughter why it rains, and his wife beams back at him, as though she's finally seen the sun break through the clouds.

Also, having come to Killer of Sheep through George Washington- a film I love, mind you- I couldn't help but think of something John Lennon once said in an interview. When a reporter asked him what he thought of kids imitating the band by wearing Beatle wigs, he responded, "they aren't imitating us because we don't wear Beatle wigs." It was a joke, but it says a lot about the nature of homage. Whereas David Gordon Green paid homage to Killer of Sheep as a deliberate, affected style, Burnett simply made his film that way because it was the best way to tell his story under the circumstances. It was born of necessity, but it worked. Someone also needs to take a look at the influence of Killer of Sheep on Stranger Than Paradise. Jarmusch's film is more self-conscious to be sure, but it's also a similarly low-key, black and white portrait of go-nowhere city life. Even when Jarmusch's heroes take to the road, they don't really go anywhere in a deeper sense. Rating: 10 out of 10.

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