Killer of Sheep


A wonderful piece of good news for Charles Burnett fans. The Killer of Sheep is being released theatrically. I was lucky enough to see a battered print five years ago while at a residency at the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio. Its been an elusive film to catch, since its music rights were never cleared and if you were lucky you could only see it at a festival or art center. But now the film has been restored and the music rights have been finally cleared allowing it to be released in several cities.

A hauntingly beautiful film, Killer of Sheep was shot in South Central Los Angeles in the early seventies. Practically plotless, but somehow deeply dramatic, it portrays the life of Stan who is a worker at a slaughter house, his family and community. Everything about it is very specific to its milieu, its minutely observant of the small moments which constitute daily lived experience, which somehow makes the the experience of watching it feel epic. There is something amazing in the sort of specificity Burnett uses, it has the confidence that not everything is understandable to an audience, but creating a world which is coherent to its subjects, that is what translates into an authentic experience for an audience. I am reminded of one of his other films,To Sleep with Anger, which is one of my favorite films, has elements of Southern folklore and myths, to which a viewer like me is not privy, but while watching the film I can sense the depth of that experience, and that is enough to invest in the film wholeheartedly, to watch it without feeling duped, which is what I normally feel reading fiction or watching movies. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy getting duped, but its practically impossible not to notice the devices being used to manipulate a response in me, and that sort of dual attention has its own pleasures. But to have this other experience, where you can just trust the text and enter it without your defenses is a rare thing.

There is an interview and report on the movie on NPR, and an essay by Nelson Kim on