Of Atmosphere and Dogs: Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" (1977)
She guards a doorway, eerily, dog mask on her face, hand stuffed in her dog-mouth. You imagine she’s about five years old, thumb and mouth appropriately attached.
Silent, she stands in the threshold as her father lectures his son desperately, yet wisely. It’s a cutting image, surreal in its juxtaposition of the perfectly innocent but also somewhat threatening mask, and the stark realism of the interior. A tattered, bare kitchen within, and without, the Watts district of L.A. in the late 1970s. Abruptly, she runs from the scene, into her backyard, and meets a neighborhood boy. Still wordless, but more expressive with her body, she's almost coy, reaching her one arm up to grab the chain-link fence while the other arm returns her hand to the dog-mouth.
What is this magical, heartbreaking, and wondrous world we've entered? The trailer below offers some idea, and is suggestive enough, at least, of certain key qualities:
This is the first opportunity for the public to see what many agree is one of the most affecting films to emerge in the 1970s. Charles Burnett's 1977 Killer of Sheep is now playing at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Avenue at W. 3rd Street), a long-delayed and storied release. Begun as his graduate project out of UCLA, it was Burnett's attempt to counter the proliferation of “blaxploitation” films from that period. Depicting a view of L.A.'s troubled yet vital Watts district, it follows, mostly, a day in the life of Stan, played by Henry Gayle Sanders, a man Burnett met by chance in an elevator and describes as "the saddest-looking man I'd ever seen."
Sad in many ways the movie is. But it is also joyful, celebratory, and funny as hell. I would put it right alongside Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. As a matter of fact, I shouldn't have said that, because now I won't be able to get the comparison out of my head: desolate, impoverished outskirts of a renowned city, daily experiences of a character who is denied access to anything other than the margins, soaring and plunging of the human spirit . . . But alright. I'll move on -- to breathtaking scene you can watch right here, in which Stan's wife applies make-up while their daughter sings along to Earth Wind and Fire in a cluttered room nearby. How the two look at each other towards the end of the scene is what this film, and life, are all about:
"Killer of Sheep" both captures and creates atmosphere: dense, vital, yet also despairing, a mingling of sounds, moods, minds, the material world, a long-since altered Watts, political and economic oppression, loss, anxiety, and more. Its atmosphere is one of strangely conflicted nostalgia mixed with an inevitable presentness, potent and immediate. Despite brutal emotional and social conditions, a childlike wonder prevails, evoking other great films that focus on children who have been prematurely thrust into a cruel adult world, including Night of the Hunter, Forbidden Games, The Bicycle Thief, and Au Hasard Balthazar.
Style-wise, however, it's SO different from those movies, in crucial geographic, cultural, and aesthetic ways, as the clips above indicate. That's one of the things that makes this film so hard to describe. You just can't pin it down. It's already gone. And yet so permanent, so always already there.