A truly great film may be informed by the background of its construction, but it rejects the complacency of time and space and proposes a view of life both timely and ultimately timeless, if not all-encompassing. For Charles Burnett, life is filtered through the Watts ghetto of LA where rituals of play, self-sacrifice, and destitution conspire to reveal a life both fully lived-in and never truly understood. But the ghetto is a prism for Burnett, not a prison. Although his film was denied a deserved canonical status for decades, his view of life is as textured as a De Sica, a Renoir, a Bresson, or a Cassavetes. Like all of those filmmakers, it defies its existence in the material world for a vision of humankind that transcends boundaries even when it confronts them.
These filmmakers are mentioned because Killer of Sheep is informed by them, even when it whistles to its own factory hum. Burnett borrows the open framing devices of De Sica, as well as the view of provisional lives partially expressed in background fields of incomplete view. From Renoir, we have the sense of pageantry, or social ritual, of humans as somehow connected in a contraption-like construct that both sparks life and croaks it. Bresson’s spiritual musings live in Killer of Sheep as well, as does his always startling and radical present-mindedness and refusal to future-proof his films by following them to the death of a pre-figured conclusion.
Cassavetes’ Shadows is likely the lexicon through which many cinephiles will decipher Killer of Sheep’s mysteries, however, but Burnett is his own artist with his own sense of rhythm and urban poetry. Loosely exploring the impressionistic milieu of life haphazardly organized around factory worker Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a black father who may fill both roles in the title, but doesn’t encapsulate either, Burnett relies on Stan and others to fulfill his titles’ promise of provisional, flexible lives. The film’s central genius is its refusal to define its protagonists even as the world conspires to box them in. Burnett is privy to the different roles we all play, as killer and sheep, as oppressor and oppressed, as individual and social entity, as bounded soul and boundless dreams. He juxtaposes visions of personhood so that we can observe Stan berate his son for his insolence in one scene, pangs of empathy and regret in his breath, and quietly leisure in the company of a pristine, cherished teacup a few minutes later.
The contrasts in tone, between graceful sangfroid and bustling fluctuation, between equilibrium and vacillating future, is oddly surrealist (not unlike another independent black-and-white effort from 1977, Eraserhead, although the surrealism here is pitched at a much less heated perch). Yet while someone like David Lynch wraps life around his cinema, stretching it and contorting it to his whim, Burnett, in contrast, carefully produces an incision into life and introduces his camera to the bloodstream of everyday chaos. Still, he finds room for escape, be it the cool blue whimsy of a quietly Chaplinesque musical accompaniment to the doldrums of factory labor or the gliding camera that hypothesizes a flight away from the tethered ground much like the youths who form the heart, if not the backbone of the film.
Burnett is especially empathetic around children, but he doesn’t patronize to them. Escape is discovered in a young black child playing with a doll and turning pop music into her own symphony of monosyllabic utterances of glee. But Burnett also threatens the girl in the same frame, boxing her in with the walls around her and the clutter of everyday life, as well as shackling her to the mental materiality of the fact that the doll, and the beauty it implies, is white. Juxtaposed against images of her mother dolling herself up, Burnett flawlessly proposes a generational human connection at once societal and spiritual while simultaneously instigating tougher questions about how beauty and escape are defined in a society that valuates whiteness above blackness.
Burnett’s tone is never saccharine or morose, though, but instead malleable and playful, with an especially troubling, exotic, intoxicating sound mix that douses everyday life in sardonic classical music and distressing, domineering wind alike. The music is ambidextrous, both inviting these low-slung, often underserved characters into the pantheon of Greek tragedy and amusingly rejecting the tradition of the classics for the freer spirits of a Dinah Washington, who also finds new life within the soundtrack.
It would be easy to dilute the music to pure irony, but Burnett doesn’t mock or indict like another filmmaker would. Instead, the music is revelatory because it strives not only to suppress the characters but to elevate them. Killer of Sheep’s camera, which refuses to tether itself to Stan and instead strolls and digresses to the unseen world around him, rejects the overblown individualism and the process-oriented nature of so many American films. The need for catharsis, for scenes that produce forward narrative thrust and specify characters, is rejected for a cinema where humans are always too fluid and complicated to define, to be known in full, so his film denies us the safety and sanity of closure and composure.
Thus, life always exists walking toward the camera, away from it, behind it, around it. Everywhere, and there is always an unthinking awareness that life might interrupt the frame at every moment. Close-ups center focus, but they don’t direct attention necessarily; they always contrast with the ever-present acknowledgment of life in the side of the frame in breathing, beating wide shots (these would become imaginative fodder for David Gordon Green, one of the few American masters of the cinema to arise in the new century). Characters are not objects or capitalist entrepreneurs whose sole striving is to better themselves along the capitalist-individualist lines of linear-narrative character-growth filmmaking; we don’t watch them thinking exclusively about their future, as we do in most American films, but about their present.
The frame exists in the moment because the moments are the unblinking gasps of life lived by the characters. They do not confront us as abstract goal-conceptions, but shards of present-tense existence. Killer of Sheep doesn’t strive to change its characters, or even to define them. We’re always witnessing a possible vision of life, not a dogmatic or complete one. Possible, proposed visions rather than declamatory ones prompt us to explore the world beyond the frame, making Burnett one of the few American filmmakers whose world is alive with the possibility to transcend the lens.