Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Race, Class and American lyricism: Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding on DVD

When Charles Burnett’s extraordinary feature debut Killer of Sheep (1977) received its first-ever proper theatrical release last spring, I, like so many others, felt instantly as though I’d found my new favourite movie. Burnett’s idiosyncratic method of capturing incident, play and struggle in the Watts district of Los Angeles, his marvelous eye for off-kilter composition, his empathy for diverse characters, his irreverent drawing out of the comedic aspects of even the most dire scenarios, his light touch with social commentary and wonderfully fluid use of songs by the likes of Paul Robeson and Dinah Washington –one of the main reasons the film was never released was its plague of music clearance issues– his necessary utilization of ultra-low budget production values as an aesthetic and even moral choice: all of these things made Killer of Sheep feel like a revelation, a movie as artful and arresting in its depiction of the marginalized classes as Los Olvidados (50).

Yet accompanying all the praise given to Killer of Sheep was this constant, melancholic undercurrent, a lament for a great, raw talent largely wasted all these years. Numerous senior critics implied that in the 30 years since the film’s completion Burnett had never matched the vitality of his debut, or, To Sleep With Anger (90) excepted, even came close. After having gone through all of Burnett’s work featured on Milestone’s new Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection, I beg to differ. The two-disc set contains four shorts by Burnett –half of which are brilliant, while the other half merely warm, smart, inventive and funny– and Burnett’s feature My Brother’s Wedding (83), which, particularly in its new director’s cut, is an absolutely worthy follow-up to the preceding masterwork.

There are doubtlessly ardent fans who might resent the simple fact that My Brother’s Wedding is a more emphatically narrative film than Killer of Sheep. But just because it has a clear story is no reason to see My Brother’s Wedding as any sort of compromise toward commercialism, nor does that story prevent Burnett from inviting his characteristic digressions into comic mishaps, amusing ephemra, or pure character development.

The film follows 30-year-old Angelino Pierce Mundy, played with unmannered sincerity by Everett Silas, who, sadly, seems to have never made another film. While doing little aside from working listlessly in his mother’s dry cleaners or helping to care for some elderly relatives, Pierce is simultaneously confronted with two inevitabilities that illustrate the socio-economic polarities that define his attitude. On the one hand, his elder brother, a successful doctor, is marrying a lawyer from a middle-class black family, much to the delight of Pierce’s working class parents and the seething hostility of Pierce. One the other, Pierce’s old pal Soldier returns home from a stint in prison, looking for good times and trouble. Both of these scenarios reach a crisis point that demand Pierce’s attention and force him to make allegiances, though in the end his inability to satisfy either party is what brings the story to its enigmatic conclusion, an image that solidifies Pierce as the unwitting representative of a community’s conflicted soul, a community at once desirous of positive change and doomed by its tendency to prey upon itself.

Burnett imbues the film with a lively, mischievous spirit, with scenes of Pierce and Soldier play-fighting in a stranger’s yard, singing doo-wop in a stairwell or using the dry cleaners as an impromptu love nest, scenes of customers who can’t claim their clothes because they can’t remember their aliases. He conveys the complexities of classism with much wit, such as in the scene in which Pierce’s nouveau riche in-laws-to-be show off their Mexican servant, taking pride in their acquisition of the accoutrements of the class that once oppressed them. And he delivers moments of wondrous lyricism, such as the one in which Pierce’s Bible reading dissolves dreamily into an ill-fated drive along a tree-lined avenue. A rough cut of My Brother’s Wedding was screened at festivals in Toronto and New York but prompted only lukewarm reviews and, in what was becoming a despairing tradition, failed to receive distribution. The rough cut ran at 118 minutes. Burnett’s new director’s cut clocks in at 81 minutes. You can’t say the man doesn’t appreciate concision.

Burnett’s first short ‘Several Friends’ (1969) is very much a stand-alone work as well as a sort of gearing up for Killer of Sheep, riffing engagingly on running themes of animal slaughter, fleeing pleasures, and broken machinery that never seems to get fixed. A child watches her father collapse in an alley. A parking lot fight is overseen by people both in cars and –in a typically goofy visual non-sequiter– on horseback. Hens are slaughtered and then plucked using some medieval machine. Two guys work on a car while a friend visits to show off his white girlfriend, a pivotal strategy in his attempts at upward mobility. The whole possesses an easy, compelling rhythm.

‘The Horse’ (1973) features eloquently composed rural landscapes in its tale of several men waiting in the mid-day heat for someone to come and facilitate the killing of a horse. One white guy sits on a shady porch, working on the crease in his pants as another lays flat and flicks a knife into the ceiling so that it dangles like some tiny sword of Damocles over his head. All the while a black boy sits mourning in the sun-beaten dust with the condemned horse. It’s a strange, curious, sad and beautiful little film.

The final highlight of this package I want to mention here is Burnett’s commentary track for Killer of Sheep. I was able to interview Burnett for Vue last July and was happy to find that same warm, humble and unassumingly insightful character speaking of his filmmaking experiences here. Most memorable for me among his comments was his feeling that people he knew back in the 70s were always telling him he needed to speak for the black community. Burnett found this idea absurd. Instead, he tried to simply show people in his community in enough situations that felt were truthful to his and their experience, and in doing so, let the black community speak for themselves.

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