Sunday, April 29, 2007

Killer of Sheep

dir. Charles Burnett

Jeff Larson, Baton Rouge
April 2, 2007 - 35mm/IFC Center Megamall

Samuel Johnson, the greatest critic who ever lived, once wrote, “the critic is the only man whose triumph is without another’s pain, and whose greatness does not rise upon another’s ruin.” These are damning words, but the inverse is, also, ultimately true. A critic – even one self-anointed like I am – faced with a work of art so completely successful and jaw-dropping in its execution is the loneliest of men. Unable to codify, categorize, and explain what or how the project does what it does, he always must resort to speaking in terms of mere beauty. And this is why the critic will always fail. From Plato to Bloom we have long sought to intellectualize beauty, but beauty is beauty because of its ephemeral and indefinable nature, understanding it is possible, but fully describing it is an impossible task. All we can hope for in cases where beauty smacks us across the face because of our vanity is to write words that present a mere fraction of what our experience was.

One of the frustratingly beautiful examples of this is, of course, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. The film focuses on a modern day shepherd, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), and, increasingly, the sadness and desperation in his eyes. He is surrounded by his family: a wife (Kaycee Moore), who is incredibly dispirited by their increasing distance, a daughter, who sings Earth, Wind & Fire songs to her dolls and wears a sad-eyed puppy dog mask, and two sons, one who in the twilight of his adolescence is both a child – he has a thing for too much sugar in his cheerios – and becoming a man – he is desperate for money, and in Watts County, California will have that desire for quite some time. And, there’s the rub: Watts County, with its TV thieves and would be murderers, is inescapable. A quick trip to a local racetrack ends with a flat tire with no spare affordable or within reach, and a potentially funny scene centers around a group of people sitting in a car, but when one of them reaches through the nonexistent windshield for a can of beer it becomes clear the car is merely a shell. The effect is devastating, and the corollary for Stan is equally so. Halfway through the movie, when Stan, shirtless, and his wife are slow dancing in silhouette, his movements are robotic while hers are fluid and loving, and slowly become urgent, determined, and desperate. These two no longer have any escape open to them even in the privacy of their own home. A crushing blow to be sure, for the scene is one of the most strikingly arresting in the whole movie, and the outcome is the most powerful depiction of overwhelming despair I have ever seen.

But the movie is not merely concerned with gloom; there is a fair amount of glitter here as well. Interspersed between Stan’s scenes are short vignettes centering on the adventures of the neighborhood children. The immediate connection between these stories and Stan is through his daughter and younger son. At first glance these scenes seem disjointed from the rest of the movie, as if they are a particularly affecting form of navel-gazing. Mostly, in these scenes, the neighborhood children throw rocks at each other or foolishly risk life and limb, but often because this playing is so cinematically beautiful, the immediate effect is a reverence towards the moment itself. Three scenes in particular stand out from the rest. In one, the children jump between rooftops, and we see them from below, as they, like Icarus, hang in midair before landing on the next roof. In another, as seen from a train, they run alongside the tracks, and, like a bunch of would-be soldiers, toss rocks towards the camera. And, even in a quiet moment, when the kids are merely sitting on the train-tracks, the framing is so exquisite and the kids are so exuberant that when they all can’t help but look at the camera, I felt a connection, a warming inside, because, yes, this is what summer is.

To most of the critics, these images are irreconcilable with Stan’s scenes; they often cite a jumbled disjointed nature to Killer of Sheep – along with some words about Stan’s culpability, the kid’s overwhelming innocence, and the underlying social message. All of these themes are, of course, there, but even in the children’s scenes a melancholy undercurrent connects with Stan’s preoccupations. Most often the children’s games are violent in the sort of ways that children’s games are: they often involve rocks, displays of superiority, or slightly dangerous actions. Their outcome is, of course, skinned knees, hurt pride, and a healthy bout of tears. Truly, most summer games end up this way, and in Killer of Sheep the kid’s emotions are conquerable – after the tears dry and your face is salty, it’s time for an ice cream and more adventures. When we are kids these feelings disappear, but as we age the feelings behind them become vastly insurmountable and dire. We learn from our culture – books, movies, human contact – that these feelings are important, and that it’s necessary, for better or for worse, to address them. And that’s the central conceit of Killer of Sheep: Stan has reached a place where he lives in his emotions, and because of Watts county, he is powerless to address them, so he becomes a stranger, the man underground. And, to some extent the same can be said of any lifetime. There will always be histories that we can’t address, can’t correct, because to do so would destroy our sense of ourselves.

The movie begins with Stan lecturing his son on what it takes to be a man – “You are not a child anymore, you soon will be a goddamn man” – Stan tells him he must protect his sister, must stand up for himself, must ignore his emotions, and must, most of all, be strong. He son listens with a mixture of confusion and disbelief. When Stan insists that he “Start learning what life is about now, son”, it’s pretty clear that he already knows: rocks hurt, and sometimes you can’t fix, or ignore, them.

The best movies are those that present their themes concisely, but you can sense an ambiguity, a certain uncertainty, behind their insistence. The closer you look, their themes collapse one by one until you are left with a hazy picture of what it was you once saw, but of one thing you are convinced, this experience, this catharsis, has placed within you a new sense of yourself and the world around you. You slowly realize the experience you're having is not one centered around a social or political argument; it is not exploring time or space; it is not a collection of disparate, perfect moments; it is not merely about race, or class, or gender: something far more complex and unnamable is happening. You are
not holding your breath out of fear, but because you are experiencing something so wonderfully beautiful. Killer of Sheep is why we go to the movies: in short, you'll never look at things the same way again.

Bonus Song!


Kalen Egan said...

Talk about a shot in the arm. Larson, here's hoping that you've saved and resurrected the aim of our humble blog. This is great, great... all take heed, watchers, readers, writers and makers alike.

Joey Devine! said...

I really resent that comment...I feel like my Final Destnination retrospective was Samuel Johnson-esque. So what if I wrote it in like 10 minutes?

JOEY DEVINE! said...

I feel like my attempted joke in the last post might have taken away from the fact that I think this fucking post fucking rules. I'm jealous mr larsen. VERY.

Jeff Larson said...

No problem, Joey-Bear, I knew you were with me all along.

Joey Devine! said...