On Thursday, Feb. 28, in the upstairs screening room at the movies at Midway in Rehoboth Beach, the Rehoboth Beach Film Society hosted a screening of Killer of Sheep, along with a question and answer session with Dr. Adbul Salau, professor of history at Delaware State University. Salau is an expert in philosophy and African-American history and culture.
Originally produced in 1977 in black-and-white, this film succeeds with no plot or clear storyline, much in the same way as those of Fellini or even Robert Altman, as merely a portrait of people, a place or time.
KILLER OF SHEEP shows us a series of scenes out of the life of a 30-something African-American male in Southern California whose poverty and insomnia is only offset by his job at a meat packing plant where he slaughters sheep and lambs.
Time magazine named it one of the best films of 2007. After being restored by UCLA and inducted into the Library of Congress, the cable channel TCM has dubbed it an instant classic.
Though it's fictional, the film certainly stands as a historical document, a testament to what many black men and many black families in that socioeconomic situation experienced in that time and probably still do experience today.
The entire movie, however, feels like filmmaker Charles Burnett's photo album, a moving photo album of selected moments from his childhood, which he all but admits. Burnett says when he made this piece it was to give people a glimpse of black life as it really was, as opposed to all the black exploitation films that were being produced in the 60s and 70s.
Sadly, there's nothing to hold this photo album together, no cinematic book binding as it were. The whole thing is a more or less scattered picture that Burnett flips through. We get glimpses of good stories that Burnett could tell, if he had had better writing skills. It works more as a mood piece, but nothing else.
Burnett opens strongly with a powerful scene of a father yelling at his son, cursing and screaming very harshly. The father hollers at the child for not getting involved with his brother's fight. The father admonishes, "Start learning what life is about!" The father then slaps the son.
Yet, we get nothing more of this, no further development or explanation, no follow-up. Instead, we see next, kids throwing dirt and rocks at each other. We see them playing near train tracks. There is no real dialogue, just kids teasing one another. There are various scenes of young black elementary school children playing in near ghetto, Los Angeles streets.
Obviously, this is a time before the popularization of video or home computer games, when kids did play more freely on the streets. Even if it weren't, these kids don't seem to come from households that could afford them, nor a television, as evidenced by a scene where an old man witnesses two Negro 20-somethings stealing a TV.
The children play on rooftops or ride their bicycles, usually two or three on one, in the streets. They spin tops or bang wrenches on cinder blocks. They seem to play with whatever trash perhaps lies around their lawns and neighborhoods. Some don't play at all, but lay around porches, curbs, or alleyways.
There's a laziness here, a boredom, a frustration in these scenes, which are intercut with those of Stan's home and work life. Stan's life, both at home and at work, is as equally boring and frustrating. Both are mundane and ordinary, as dull as staring at fish in an aquarium for an hour and a half.
The first shot of Stan is his half-naked form on his knees trying to fix the sink. He complains to his friend about not sleeping, being tired, mentally and physically, and expressing a very depressive nature. His friend asks, "Why don't you kill yourself?" To which, Stan responds, "No... got a feeling I might do somebody else some harm though."
Yet, Stan doesn't harm anyone. Despite the temptation, he instead internalizes it. It later manifests itself in his insomnia and the distance he maintains from his wife and kids. One particularly heart-breaking scene is wrought when after dancing together very sensually in silhouette, Stan's wife tries to initiate sex, or at least more tenderness, but, Stan merely pulls away and in fact runs out of the room.
In order to maintain some semblance of sanity, in order to perhaps to take his mind over his poverty, his frustration, or his boredom, Stan focuses on work, odd projects around the house, or, his job at the meat packing plant, a euphemism for a nasty, bloody, sheep slaughterhouse.
We see shots of Stan hosing down the place, then camera shots of meat hooks, and then that of goats and sheep packed together, breathing on top of each other, unable to escape. Is this maybe a metaphor that Burnett is trying to convey? We can't tell. Burnett never provides enough context, or he never intellectualizes his images.
All we're treated to is the shots of sheep hanging on those meat hooks, being sheered, gutted, and their heads placed on sticks, shown opposing pictures of cuddly sheep, seemingly next up on the chopping block. Does this speak to some kind of innocence, humanity, or compassion lost, as we see Stan and other workers kill sheep so without regard?
Or, is Burnett simply stating that there is no context, nor intellectualizing these incidents or these characters? They simply are what they are. They do what they do to survive, to live within this desperate and in many ways desolate situation.
Burnett's choices for several camera angles and positions are so off center and awkward. There is at times very poor editing, either too quick or too long of cuts. He does so probably because he garnered very little in terms of coverage. The acting was at times atrocious, the actors sounding like they were reading lines stiffly and woodenly.
Henry Gayle Sanders who plays Stan is the only exception. He is a true standout, and the emotions read off his face are piercing, but Burnett wanders off on characters who become only annoying and pointless. Burnett's script tells no straightforward story. It instead drifts in and out, much like an insomniac, teetering on the brink of slumber.
The film may be the killer of sheep, but certainly not the killer of sleep.
Three Stars out of Five.
Unrated for Theaters and DVD release.
Intended for Mature Audiences.
Running Time: 1hr. and 20 mins.