You may have missed it in the New Yorker a few weeks back (if it weren’t for my wife, I would’ve), but tucked away in the Critic’s Notebook section of the magazine was the best piece of cinematic news I’ve heard all year. Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett’s 1977 film about life in the Watts section of Los Angeles, has finally gotten a theatrical release. Because of issues clearing the rights of the music in the film (the single biggest pain in any independent filmmaker’s neck), it’s been locked away in a vault in the Library of Congress, shown only once every few years at a film festival or museum. I was lucky enough to catch a rare screening when I was in college, and it was unforgettable.
The story, in so far as there is one, is simple. Stan, an employee of a South Central slaughterhouse (hence the title of the film), is depressed and retreating from his wife. Interspersed with scenes of Stan at home and at work (the footage of the sheep is both fascinating in its gore and haunting, like watching a lake before a storm) are snippets of kids playing, women gossiping, and men scheming to make a few dollars more. What makes Killer of Sheep so memorable is the depth and reality of the characters and the incredibly complex humor the film employs. Indeed, for a movie that says so much about poverty, it’s surprisingly funny. And the new print – beautifully restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive – is a luscious 35mm blow-up of the original 16mm negative. I saw the film again last night, and it looked crisp and clean.
In certain film-buff circles, Killer of Sheep has long been a trump card, an instant badge of street cred that could top anything. Oh, you saw a five hour performance of Gances’ Napoleon with the London Philharmonic? Well, I saw Killer of Sheep a few weeks ago at Doc Films. Since it’s never even been released on video, it has become legendary, a sort of a cinematic equivalent to J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1920.” But to leave it at this is to cheapen a tremendous film, and to discount the effect it’s had on cinema since. David Gordon Green, Spike Lee, and the people who make “The Wire” all owe a debt to Mr. Burnett. As much as I loved being the only person in on the joke, I’d love even more if everybody went out and saw this film. Luckily, it might be coming to a theater near you.