Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Charles Burnett on Killer of Sheep

One of the most simultaneously acclaimed and unseen works in American movies, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is finally making its proper theatrical debut 30 years after its completion. Its scarcity was partially due to licensing difficulties resulting from the film’s expressive use of music from the likes of Paul Robeson, Rachmaninoff and Dinah Washington, whose rendition of ‘This Bitter Earth’ supplies the emotional clincher for two of the film’s most memorable, stark and heartbreaking scenes.

Not that Burnett needed any assistance with regards to the film’s lyricism. Set within the crumbling buildings, dusty rail yards and rundown homes of Watts, Los Angeles, Burnett’s images of children roof jumping, wearing masks or playing with rocks, families assembling on front stoops, and its protagonist, Stan, accumulating work hours in an abattoir are imbued with an aching visual poetry –not to mention a terrifically funky sense of humour. These two elements frequently conspire to provide the film with its most pointed moments, such as the scene where Stan explains why he doesn’t consider himself poor. “I give things to the Salvation Army sometimes,” he says.

Stan’s occupation also forms a poetic, if dire, link with his private disorders: Stan’s an insomniac, thus he not only kills sheep but counts them, too. His wife craves his affection desperately, but he’s a million miles away. When not working, Stan throws himself into less emotionally demanding projects, such as acquiring a motor for a friend’s jalopy, a mission doomed to comic failure. The closest thing to conventional heroism on display here is simply Stan and his wife’s ability to endure an existence that promises precious few opportunities at advancement with their humanity in tact.

Social context aside, the singular, striking images of
Killer of Sheep seem informed by the photography of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. And these images have gone on to deeply influence other films, most notably David Gordon Green’s George Washington. Burnett himself seems perpetually surprised by his film’s impact however, claiming that he never intended it to be seen outside of activist or social science screenings. His family moved to Watts when Burnett was just entering kindergarten, and he felt that Killer of Sheep was basically just a reflection on where he was from. He spoke to with me from his current home in a different section of Los Angeles.

JB: I heard you first studied electronics.

Charles Burnett: Yeah, I was thinking about becoming an engineer. But I started looking at other people who were going into it, listening to their comments and jokes, what they expected out of life. It just didn’t seem interesting to me. Their jokes weren’t funny. They were looking forward to job security, buying a Winnebago, all that junk. That didn’t sound too inviting.

JB: Was being a filmmaker too far out a notion for you then?

CB: It was more a matter of my not being aware of it. When I was a kid I always wanted to do something with a camera, but had no clear ideas. Then I went into electronics, got disenchanted with that. Then I started going to movies a lot, and wondering how you make these things. And I discovered UCLA’s program, which was dirt-cheap at the time.

JB: How was your experience at UCLA?

CB: It was a chance for discovery. I remember taking this documentary class with Basil Wright that was very instrumental in my deciding which way to go.

JB: In the sense that you saw the documentary elements within fiction films?

CB: It was more that when people would talk about fiction films, you never heard them talk about the importance of treating the subject in a human way. Being honest and respectful, that kinda stuff. It made me look at films differently.

JB: Did you always intend to make a film about race, class and community?

CB: Well, I was certainly aware of race, being from Mississippi. And L.A. was worse somehow, divided and Apartheid-like in many ways. In my neighbourhood two or three of us couldn’t walk down the street together without being harassed, being sent to jail for the least thing. They wouldn’t give you a chance. Lots of kids thought it was funny going to jail, a rite of passage. So I think that my social conscience just came from growing up in that environment.

JB: It’s interesting to consider
Killer of Sheep in the context of its period, particularly how it contrasts the blaxploitation films popular then.

CB: Many of us were getting into film to create our own narratives, to counter what Hollywood offered. So when these blaxploitation films came, initially they were exciting simply because a black person was the centre of attention. The negative side became apparent later on. But my thing was trying to reflect a situation where the audience would be able to ask themselves how they might help these people. And I didn’t want to romanticize things with regard to the working class.

JB: Did the story come to you in an ordered way?

CB: It did actually. But I wanted it based in the day to day. There’s no single thread that moves it, just the things that happen as you continue trying to eke out a life.

JB: Music is unusually vital in
Killer of Sheep. Did you have a precise idea how the music would interact with your images?

CB: Yeah. A lot of it is blues, music I grew up with. I associate it with that environment. And with blues you have to grow up to really understand it. I had the good fortune to speak with August Wilson many years before he died, and he was saying how these same songs somehow generated images for his plays. That’s how it worked for me.

JB: Looking back after 30 years, how has
Killer of Sheep changed for you?

CB: Seeing it now just makes me think how the neighbourhood’s changed. It was a much better life back then, before crack hit. People could still own their homes. There was a sense of community. Parents these days don’t want their kids going out for fear they might get shot. Back then kids could go anywhere. People used to say that if you wanted to better yourself just get a high school diploma. Now they’ll just tell you to get up and get away from here.

JB: Are the things that were important to you when you made
Killer of Sheep still important to you now?

CB: I think the core is still there, the whole idea of why I got into film in the first place. The problem’s just that you can’t do the film you want to. With money comes however many compromises, and you need to constantly put things in terms that money people understand.

JB: Any chance this new wave of acclaim for
Killer of Sheep might help you do what you want?

CB: Nah. People want films to make money. Folks’ll just look at me as an art film person. And art can be a dirty word in this business.

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