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story.lead_photo.caption Stan (Henry G. Sanders) struggles in Killer of Sheep. - Photo by Movie Studio Release

— If you pay attention to such things you know that Army of Shadows, a 1969 film that didn't receive a release in this country until 2006, showed up on a lot of movie critics' Top 10 lists last year. That phenomenon is likely to be repeated this year with the release of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, one of the most acclaimed American films of the last half of the 20th century. Killer of Sheep was made in 1977 as the master's thesis of UCLA film student Charles Burnett, who would go on to direct To Sleep With Anger (1990) and The Glass Shield (1994).

Because it was a student film and Burnett expected no one beyond his professors and a few peers to see it, no one bothered to secure the rights to its music. So it has, until recently,been screened only a handful of times at film festivals and special events. It was part of the first Little Rock Film Festival in May and begins its theatrical run in Little Rock today.

It is a startling work, a blackand-white masterpiece that could be taken for a documentary. It is anchored by the stoic, unmannered performance of Henry Gayle Sanders as Stan, the titular slaughterhouse worker and head of a poor, earnest family struggling to keep it together inthe Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. While Burnett's story of life in the ghetto is scripted, it is low-key and almost completely free of the drama (and the fierceness) of, say, Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. This is a Watts without riots, where radical chic politics are a luxury no working person can afford.

Burnett seems influenced more by Italian neorealists and French directors like Robert Bresson and Jean Renoir - particularly The Rules of the Game (1939) and The Grand Illusion (1937) - than the Hollywood movie brats who were riding high at the time. Still, Killer of Sheep does have some of the discursive, deeply felt ambience of Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces, a movie that can in some respects be seen as its photo negative image. Where Five Easy Pieces is about drifting and the abrogation of responsibility, Killer is about staying put and standing up - about what it means to be a man, or more precisely an adult, in a battering world that, at the end of the day, leaves you too tired to move.

Stan and his nameless wife (Kaycee Moore) are exhausted but not embittered by the demands of their thwarted lives; while they are intelligent and sensitive, they have no recourse but to keep pushing forward. They have children, they have the odd moment of fun, but mostly they are trapped in a grinding cycle of poverty that allows little room for dreams.

Some are likely to find KOS frustrating or even boring for its lack of dramatic conflict and narrative thrust. This is a film that doesn't tell a story so much as paint a portrait. It was never intended to please casual moviegoers looking for a little escape with popcorn and air conditioning. It is a serious, powerful movie, an authentic American classic.

MovieStyle, Pages 44 on 07/20/2007

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