Tuesday, April 03, 2007

movie review: Killer Of Sheep @ IFC Center

For better or worse, many of my friends are in the Media industry, so when they tell me about a film, or a band, or a TV show, their descriptions are filled with superlatives that sound like they are straight out of a press release, or a PR strategist's media campaign briefing book.

My buddy Michael isn't part of that "insider" gang...he's a straight-up movie buff. He sees an awful lot of stuff, and I've learned that he's got a terribly discerning eye for quality films.

I recently saw an ad for the IFC Center's showing of the recently restored Killer Of Sheep, described on it's website as follows:

"Killer of Sheep examines the black Los Angeles ghetto of Watts in the mid-1970s through the eyes of Stan, a sensitive dreamer who is growing detached and numb from the psychic toll of working at a slaughterhouse.

Frustrated by money problems, he finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a coffee cup against his cheek, slow dancing with his wife in the living room, holding his daughter. The film offers no solutions; it merely presents life — sometimes hauntingly bleak, sometimes filled with transcendent joy and gentle humor."

I knew Mike would have an opinion on this flick, and before I could ask, I found the following in my email box with a request for it to be posted here, which I'm happy to do:


If I told you that you could see a pure, ego-less, and absolutely essential humanistic film wonder at the movies this week and top that off with a declaration of a money back guarantee... would you bite? Well, I hope so.

I chose this blog to post this announcement because I think its creator, Mr. Wack, is one of the most humane
and moral people I know. I think this movie, Killer Of Sheep, is one of the most humane and important works of modern American art so it only seemed fitting to make this blog an outlet for my offer. The details I remember are sketchy, but the story goes that the writer/director Charles Burnett made this film as his graduate thesis for UCLA film school. I think it took something like 5 years to complete the project, working mostly on weekends and when there was money to rent equipment. When the mind thinks of this kind of cobbled together, slow cooked labour of love the initial inclination is to imagine having to forgive its inherent limitations w/in an art form that requires millions rather than hundreds of dollars to work properly. Often when you watch a movie on IFC or Sundance you prepare yourself for something less than perfect, but that you know is good for you and might require a bit more chewing, like say oat bran. None of that here.

Robert Bresson, the famed French director, once said, "Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen". That is exactly what Burnett did with, Killer of Sheep.

Ironically, despite its focus on giving cinematic existence to off the radar American life, it is probably the most revered modern American film never before screened in you local theatre. Kind of absurd to imagine it being one of the 50 original films chosen for the National Registry, labeled as a "national treasure" by the Library of Congress and yet almost nobody has had the opportunity to view it since its completion in 1977. I would rather not suppose why that was initially, but there are copyrighted songs in the soundtrack that probably were unlicensed (and for the sake of a thesis project probably not required) and even if the public demand for this film were high, it could not have been legally screened beyond the world of non-profit film centers (it was just such a screening that I was extremely fortunate to attend at the Museum of The Moving Image my first week after moving to NYC in 1995)... until now!

Finally the kicker. Killer of Sheep is one of the best movies I have seen. And as the Wack one can attest, I've seen a few. Its power is stunning. Burnett's ability to tell a hard, wearying story about race, class, and family without any more ego than a camera toting fly on the wall is among the rarest gifts in film history. The title refers to the main character's job working in a slaughter house, but I just don't want to interject any more than that. I've seen many a movie depict racial isolation, but one scene here where the family car breaks down on the freeway is a study in quiet, desperate, underclass horror that has no equal in American cinema.

I don't really have words to show Killer of Sheep proper respect, so I'll just offer anybody with a verifiable ticket stub from the current run screening at the IFC Center @ 6th Ave and 3rd St. in Manhattan a refund if you aren't well and truly moved by seeing this film. extrawack! can hip you to my contact info, and I will gladly reimburse you on the spot (I live 3 blocks from the IFC Center). I also encourage you to share the experience with others. Word of mouth is the best tribute you can give to artistic expression that enriches the soul. Killer of Sheep makes me proud to share "This Bitter Earth" with Charles Burnett.


Buy IFC Center tickets here.


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