Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s 1977 bastion of Black American cinema, is philosophical without being pretentious; real without being tedious; melancholy without being depressing. It isn’t a happy film, but it is a beautiful one: formally, aesthetically, and in its poignant assessment of the human condition.
It’s a relief that the ‘plot’ can be outlined without giving anything away; there isn’t much to give away. Nothing much happens, and yet everything happens. The film, shot on weekends for $10,000 (about £18,600 in today’s British money), is a series of vignettes featuring abattoir worker Stan (Henry G. Sanders), and his family and friends. Occasionally, these quiet domestic scenes are intercut with increasingly distressing images of Stan’s job as a killer of sheep in a slaughterhouse. Throughout the movie, thanks in part to the historic performances of Sanders and Kaycee Moore (who plays his wife), we see a range of human emotions through a darker lens than usual: love (unrequited), hatred (directed towards the self), ennui (enveloping the entire Watts district of L.A.), and others too nuanced for me to express in words – it would just seem trite. In the film, most things are said by being left unsaid.
Of course, many have tried. Since the film’s release in 1977, it has induced a wealth of exegesis; the film can legitimately be analysed from various angles, such as Marxist or existentialist. Feminist readings would be particularly interesting: women are hardly marginalised in the film, often sharing in the best scenes and the best dialogue, but while Stan and his son are listed by name in the credits, their sexual analogues are credited as “Stan’s wife” and “Stan’s daughter”. Despite all the valid intellectual angles, however, to adopt one in particular would be reductive. We don’t look at life through specific lenses, and since this film is one of the most real portrayals of life in existence, we should be holistic rather than myopic.
Aesthetically and structurally, the film is great. The film doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere; its meandering, non-deterministic structure reflects the pathetic fatalism of the characters. Does this film take place over days, weeks, months, or years? We never really know; it’s timeless and structurally amorphous. But within the apparent shapelessness, we see that Burnett is a master of composition. He has an eye for the arresting image: early on, we see a child sporting an oversized dog mask. It may symbolise loyalty, or simply a barrier between her and the harsh realities of her world; but ultimately, the aesthetic effect of its grotesque surrealism is more powerful than any faux-profound symbolist interpretation of it. That’s another great thing about this film – it’s so unaffected and yet so profound that, almost by default, it renders faux-profound any attempts to analyse it.
Burnett’s use of music is also brilliant; ironically, it was his failure to procure the rights to the music that hamstrung the film, preventing it from being seen more widely. Some of the music effectively complements certain scenes in its tone, such as ‘Mean Ol’ World’ by Little Walter, or Arthur Crudup’s ‘Mean Ol’ Frisco Blues’; some of it, like the appearance of Louis Armstrong’s shit-kicking ‘West End Blues’ when the car breaks down, is ironic. But the use of the song ‘This Bitter Earth’, sung by Dinah Washington, is unforgettable. It’s played twice, once to a sexually frustrated slow dance between Stan and his wife, and again at the end of the film when Stan fixes sheep up for their slaughter. You think Tarantino is the undisputed master of musical recontextualisation? Think again.
Chronologically, the film is apparently without structure, but it does have three distinct spheres, accentuated by the Burnett’s brilliant use of artificial and natural light. There’s the world of the kids, who, in scenes that might bring to mind Fernando Meirelles’ more recent City of God, play, fight, josh, run about, and revel in a total lack of self-awareness. Their world is flooded in bright natural light, and the spaces in which they play are wide-open but barren. They have horizons, but seem to be going nowhere fast; it is their scenes, filmed with exquisite naturalism, that are the most enjoyable and yet also the most melancholy. The second sphere is the domestic world of the adults, whose restricted possibilities are reflected in the enclosed spaces and the gloomier lighting. Smiles rarely cross their faces, and when they do, they’re careworn and fleeting. The third sphere, characterised by often harshly bright lighting, is Stan’s world: the abattoir. It’s one of the film’s perversities: his job is so psychologically debilitating that halfway through the film, we realise we’re no longer sure about domestic and work-based spheres for him. Does he go home to find a sanctuary from the brutality of his job? Or does his job provide solace and meaning in contrast to his listless domestic life?
All three spheres bleed into and parallel each other in strange ways. The splicing of the abattoir scenes is particular effective, jolting us into realising the Sisyphean nature of life for the film’s characters. Some critics, such as Bishetta Merritt, have pointed out the juxtaposition of the slaughterhouse and the children: the sheep and the kids are unwitting to their demise. While this is true, the adults shouldn’t be excluded from this diagnosis. Or perhaps they are aware, but just don’t give a shit, suppressing or rationalising their angst. The sheep have the innocence of the children, but are situationally akin to the adults.
The sadness of all this is leavened invaluably by the well-judged humour. It’s the kind of humour you don’t see often in movies: there’s no situational humour, and no set-ups. The fun comes from watching the interactions between the characters. “How many times I gotta tell you, don’t call your mother ‘M’dear’?” Stan reprimands his son indignantly. And says one woman to a lecherous slob: “You about as tasteless as a carrot!” The humour can be dark too, complementing the film’s sense of malaise; one man, when asked to intervene in a case of minor domestic violence, tends to his hair and drawls into his mirror: “I got mo’ important things on ma plate.”
The film isn’t perfect. While the performances of Sanders, Kaycee Moore, and the child characters are all unforgettable, some of the supporting players are slightly weaker. There is one scene involving a dropped car-motor whose culmination is too predictable to justify the scene’s length. And more abattoir scenes would not have gone amiss: the film’s subtlety is one of its greatest strengths, but the slaughterhouse snippets are too subtle, never quite leading to much of an emotional pay-off. Such a ‘pay-off’ is an irritatingly ‘Hollywood’ concept, but given the film’s title and the fact that Stan is so obviously worn down by his job, the sheep would have provided us with added context and valuable company.
Nonetheless, despite its flaws and the fact that it clearly exhibits the influence of Indian and Italian neorealism, there are very few films like it. It was one of the first 50 films of all time to be selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the US National Film Registry. Many films since have basked in the film’s influential shadow: several people point to David Gordon Green’s film George Washington (2000), while I personally see the spirit of Burnett, Sanders et al. in Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop (2007). As long as there’s an America with a poor underbelly, Killer of Sheep will live on as a vital historical document.
A stray observation: a friend remarked about the significance of possessions in the film, and how they tie in to ideas of self-identification and the American Dream. This is interesting, and true. But what I found refreshing was how little the possessions seemed to matter. Sure, they seem to stand for greater things at first – the record player at the beginning conveys music and spirituality, just as the car motor later on symbolises several things (masculinity, and mobility both geographical and social). But the possessions are treated with little respect. A kid bangs a chair into the dining table; he pours gratuitous amounts of sugar wastefully into his cereal bowl; the ruination of the car motor is completely unnecessary. This fits into the general theme of malaise, which again connects with Stan’s job. But the malaise afflicts the rest of the L.A. town too, with everyone we see being a slob, a petty criminal, a flirt, or a tiny tatterdemalion. What a sorry picture it is.