Wednesday, August 6, 2008

#40: Killer of Sheep


Killer of Sheep
Directed by Charles Burnett
Written by Charles Burnett
Filmed in 1975, remained unavailable on DVD until 2007

"You're not a child anymore. Soon you'll be a goddamn man!"

Judging Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep against, say, Hollywood movies isn't exactly fair; Sheep was a student film made in 1975 with amateur actors with a budget of about $10,000. And yet, this student film contains a number of images and scenes of poignancy that you couldn't find in a Hollywood drama at a budget 100 to 500 times its size.

Of course, that $10,000 budget did not include the many songs Burnett used as his soundtrack. It wasn't until decades later, with the help of director and Hollywood heavyweight Steven Soderbergh, that the $150,000 price tag of securing the music rights was covered so the film could finally see the light of day, commercially.

It's hard to recommend this movie without a number of caveats, the most important being that THIS IS A STUDENT FILM. The acting for the most part is pretty shaky, though the best performances come in the most naturalistic scenes of everyday life. Really, the best acting comes from the children in the movie, who rarely regard the camera while turning in the most believable performances.

The second thing a viewer must consider is the complete lack of "plot." Killer of Sheep is more a collection of vignettes, a sort of slice-of-life assemblage of moments meant to give you an impression of the lives of one family, and specifically one man, coping with a life that is gradually becoming more bleak and repetitive by the day. Some of the more literary folk out there might consider the stories of Raymond Carver as a sort of reference point.

Forget the flaws. What's more important than conventional plotting, than often poorly recorded sound, or even acting here is imagery and tone. Certain images, like a little girl in a dog mask, or the opening scenes of boys playing violently by throwing rocks at each other, or the no-wires-attached shots of the kids jumping from rooftop to rooftop, pop with originality.

The final montage, set to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth," may not provide the ending that most people would hope want, but it does provide a chilling sort of closure.

Killer of Sheep definitely isn't for everyone, the same way that the lo-fidelity music of a band like Guided by Voices won't appeal to fans of Top 40 radio. This is for the kind of viewer who can appreciate something that, literally, does not look or sound like a million bucks. It's not great, but it is what it is: one of the most impressive "class project" pieces of homegrown, amateur cinema you can find.

For more on Killer of Sheep:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia
- Buy the DVD.
- The official movie site

The official trailer:

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