Thursday, May 17, 2007

Adam Hartzell on Killer of Sheep


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There are a lot of options for Frisco cinephiles this week. The Mission Creek Music/Film Festival wraps up Sunday with events at Artists' Television Access and the Lab. Film Night in the Park starts its summertime video series this Saturday with the Graduate in Washington Square Park. Nanook of the North plays the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum the same night. Naked Lunch plays as a midnight movie Friday and Saturday at the Clay. Both parts of Olympia screen at SFMOMA on Sunday (and again the following Sunday). You can follow along with some of the current Hollywood selections at the Cannes Film Festival by checking out Zodiac at the Red Vic Friday and Saturday, and Grindhouse all week at the theatre it was seemingly just about made for, the Parkway. And the Film on Film Foundation will present 16mm prints of Venom and Eternity and Christopher MacClaine's The End at the Roxie on Wednesday, May 23rd. That's just a sampling of the cinematic opportunities here; check my sidebar for more.

But no matter how many of the above events you attend, any self-respecting follower of non-mainstream cinema should have as the top priority of the week at least one screening of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, playing May 18-24 at the Rafael, Shattuck and Castro Theatre in beautiful new 35mm prints. Before this year it had only been seen on 16mm prints, and reportedly they were often beat-up and scratchy ones at that. Still, the film made a strong impression on just about anybody who saw it. When Adam Hartzell, who occasionally contributes to Hell on Frisco Bay when he's not immersed in Korean cinema, heard the film was coming to town he immediately offered to write on it. Here's his piece:
Starting this weekend at the Castro Theatre, through the tireless efforts of many unsung individuals, San Franciscans will have the opportunity to see a film that has been kept from us for way too long. Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep will finally see the release it has deserved for many years, roughly 30 years after it was completed. Killer of Sheep was the culmination of Burnett's graduate work at UCLA. My understanding is that it has taken this long for it to receive its release because the film has been locked up in copyright wranglings regarding the jazz numbers used on the soundtrack. So those of us who have seen it have, perhaps, been involved in questionable practices. But we engage in such ambiguous practices not out of lawlessness, but out of strong interests in cultural documents that present to us moments of transcendence.

My only screening of this film was in April 2001 thanks to Joel Shepard bringing Charles Burnett to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. (When Burnett was brought to the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley a few years later, they weren’t able to show Killer of Sheep due to the copyright issues. Why YBCA could screen it and PFA couldn’t, I don’t know. I’m guessing it has something to do with where the films legal matters were at the time of each screening.) Although I am always open to how my factual memory fails me, I feel quite confident in my emotional memory. I recall being completely captivated by this black and white homage to the everyday life of African-Americans in South Central Los Angeles.

Since Killer of Sheep was completed while Burnett was at university, Burnett used non-professional actors. In spite of this, or because of this, I found the film truly visionary. There is a deep sadness in the faces of many in this film, particularly the father who works in a slaughterhouse. But there is never pity. The sadness is clearly a part of the human condition, showing the working class without the buffer of buffoonery. Burnett says that he was reacting somewhat to the primary portrayals of blacks in cinema of the time, the caricatures of blaxploitation and the black characters that spoke more to a white community than to his own. Mind you, there is some humor and playfulness in the film, such as the refreshingly commonplace scene of a large appliance being moved around the house. And those who've seen David Gordon Green's debut film, George Washington, will experience the dissonance of allusion out of order caused by discovering that Green's masking of one of the children in his film was clearly a reference to Burnett's definitive work. But the film's main intent is human dignity for everyday people.

As demonstrated above, Killer of Sheep is often positioned against the dominant media portrayals of African-Americans at the time. But binaries and other oppositional frames are too easy. Christine Acham demonstrates the need to get beyond these oppositional frames in her book Revolution Televised: Prime Time and the Struggle for Black Power. She shows that even much maligned TV shows such as Julia (1968-71) and Good Times (1974-79) had their moments of resistant discourse if not through the shows but through what Robin D.G. Kelley calls "hidden transcripts", where the respective lead actresses of those shows, Diahann Carroll and Esther Rolle, sought agency within the counter-narratives permitted in mainstream magazines when they found they couldn't push the shows in the directions they desired. What Burnett accomplishes with this film is what many African-Americans maneuvering through the restrictive environments of movie and TV screens of the time hoped to negotiate with their crafts, to display their community with the deep respect denied them for so long. Not many were able to create the complete visions they aspired towards since much of the production and direction was outside their full control. Burnett accomplished what he did because he was outside the industry through the productive and supportive space of academia, where, at least during the era when Burnett attended, making money from ones academic projects wasn’t a concern. Then his art ran into the commodification of another art form and his work was suppressed for a few decades.

But it's finally here for us to enjoy free of ethical dilemmas. Persistence pays off. Just like many of us were anxious with anticipation to finally see Tears of a Black Tiger, a very different film than Killer of Sheep, earlier this year after its sentence to release-limbo, the long-term investments many have made in this work will pay off with experiential dividends. (Interestingly, both these films were released from release-limbo the very same year that the Catholic Church abolishes the whole theological concept of the "State of Limbo".) Yes, I have many more American films to see, but I'm confident Killer of Sheep will maintain its rightful place in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry as one of the greatest American films ever made.