Killer of Sheep
Somewhere between Several Friends (1969) and today, Charles Burnett’s work speeds up – not (alas) in his opportunities to make work, but internally. His early films – preeminently Killer of Sheep, today available in a superb DVD reconstruction from Milestone – have a loose-limbed feel. The assiduous description of everyday, ordinary lives, spacious and leisurely, in intercrossed vignettes, takes precedence over straight-ahead narrative hooks and resolutions. However, by the time of his acclaimed copland drama The Glass Shield (1994), or his underrated family melodrama assignment for Oprah Winfrey Productions The Wedding (1998), everything has become much faster.
A hyper-economic approach to storytelling gives rise to a breakneck speed that is as exhilarating as it can be deliberately disorienting. A plot question left lingering at the the end of one scene is swiftly answered in the next, with the sound impatiently anticipating the image. (This ‘70s affectation of the audio lead-in is disliked by many contemporary filmmakers, but Burnett is its true poet.) Tense exchanges between characters are reduced to a shot and a counter-shot (sometimes not even that much), a couple of lines (at best) of dialogue, or simply a telling look or gesture.
More than anything, Burnett grasps the task of the director as one of inventing surprising, eloquent, forceful gestures – which is why the slow-dance scene between the bare-chested but strangely alienated San (Henry G. Sanders) and his wife (Kaycee Moore), trembling with amorous emotion, is the single most-recalled moment from Killer of Sheep, or indeed Burnett’s entire, prodigious, multi-faceted career to date.
And this attentiveness to physical gesture – the the casual posture, the defensive hand or arm reflex, the instinctual full-body movement of flight or embrace (see them all, in an astonishingly swift cycle, in the devastating final scene of The Glass Shield) – remains the same, whether Burnett is batting the storyline slow or fast.
Rhythm, gesture, time, space: such talk of cinematic form does not always leap to the forefront of the minds of even Burnett’s most fervent commentators. Because so much of his work has, for so long, stayed invisible and inaccessible, there has always been a perceived need to return to Square One in order to plead his case, to set right the prevailing cultural inquities, and often in a polemical way: Burnett the great, unknown, black American filmmaker, better than Spike Lee, his work a more authentic vision of his culture than either the Shaft or Barbershop series (that wouldn’t be hard), an eternal, political radical pushed to the margins of mainstream cinema and television …
Most often, Burnett is pegged – without much further probing – as a realist, or more tonily a neo-realist. Indeed, a glimpse at his short Quiet as Kept (2007) on the Killer of Sheep DVD – a hilarious five-and-a half-minute sketch in which the members of a family argue over whether Star Wars, Superfly or The Cosby Show is the most suitable viewing for a black adolescent – quickly arouses a close comparison with Mike Leigh’s quirky, slice-of-life “five-minute movies” made for UK television in the 1980s.
But there is more to be said about Burnett – especially as the realist designation often serves, in practice, to replace analysis of achieved filmic form by a nebulous praise of the auteur’s mere “powers of observation”. Alas, you won’t get much assistance in this matter from notes by Armond White accompanying the Milestone release. White (of the National Review) tries out all his usual outflanking manoeuvres in this piece. He is a critic who likes to evoke a critical mass of sickening, regressive, ignorant consensus from which he nimbly dissociates himself, but to which he unfailingly associates his reader. This – never a good stance for a critic in the public sphere – leads to a tiresome, pugilistic posture.
Mr White wheels through the predictable provocations in relation to Burnett: you’ve only just discovered Killer of Sheep now, and missed it in ‘77? Then you don’t really know the score! You are clambering on the current bandwagon to hail it as a “masterpiece” (this word never comes without scare quotes, even in the essay’s title)? Ha, you are thus castrating its true force! You want to compare it to Umberto D (1952) or Bicycle Thieves (1948)? Rank sentimentality! In place of all these apparent no-no’s, White proffers only one assertion, reiterated many times: that Killer of Sheep indelibly captures the hurt of everyday people living under oppression.
Which is true, but not the whole story of what makes Killer of Sheep a masterpiece (let’s drop the quote marks, please). I inadvertently prised open one of the film’s secrets by rewatching parts of it in fast motion: Burnett is an artist of the life of certain objects, fixtures, small loci or transition-points – like a car, or a front porch. His characters teem in, out, through and around these special points, subject to a dozen tiny but forceful determinations: the time of day (leaving for work or returning home), each person’s highly individual style and rhythm, and the intersubjective dynamics of friends or family.
One of the best accounts of Killer of Sheep could have been inserted into Gilles Deleuze’s books on The Movement-Image and The Time-Image in the 1980s, if only the French philosopher had been able to see it in Paris at the time: Burnett’s cinematic poetry arises from the hundred small “sensory-motor disconnections” of every damn day, gaps and disclocations from which a sad but resilient emotion flows.
Burnett’s style – in those early years, as well as in shorts like Quiet as Kept and the superb When It Rains (1986) – is as profoundly musical as that of Martin Scorsese or Terrence Malick. This is another aspect of Burnett’s work that deserves close attention: the superbly placed snatches of music, the mixing of that music with the rhythms, intonations and cadences of the spoken words, the way that the scenes seem to be shaped to the music, rather than (as is usual) vice versa.
Indeed, when we look again closely at that famous dance scene in Killer of Sheep we notice, alongside the exactness and intensity of the human gestures, how music washes in and out of the tableau, like the ebb and flow of life itself: strangely but beautifully, when the first song is over, another begins, after the bodies have parted, doubling the sadness and wisdom of the scene.
In his magnum opus The Body of Cinema (2011), Raymond Bellour defined the peculiar emotion that emanates from special moments of film. He emphasises, more than even in his stricter semotic days of 1970s textual analysis, the shot as the cinematic unit par excellence. The shot, he argues, contains, marshalls and sends in various directions the emotions that are created and sustained by the smallest, frame-by-frame movements in cinema: the beating wing of a bird, the splutter of a car engine, the discontinuous landscape seen through a train window, as well as all the movements and gestures of the human body. It’s at that level, finally, that we will come to appreciate the great artistry of Charles Burnett.
For more on Killer of Sheep, its critical and scholarly reception, and especially its central dance scene, see the 2015 audiovisual essay by Cristina Álvarez López and me, Against the Real.