LITTLE ROCK Charles Burnett may be as anonymous a major artist as this country has ever produced. He is the epitome ofthe independent film director, staying under the radar for his entire career despite creating a couple of genuinely great films - 1977's Killer of Sheep, which opens at Market Street Cinema today, and 1990's To Sleep With Anger - and one should-have-been blockbuster, 1994's The Glass Shield.
Burnett was born in Vicksburg, Miss., in 1944 and moved as a child to Los Angeles. During the 1960s, after earning a degree in electrical engineering at Los Angeles Community College, he enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles to study film.
Despite the public acclaim of critics and fellow filmmakers, Burnett has never made much of an impression on the larger public. While younger black filmmakers like SpikeLee and John Singleton rode to prominence, in part by exploiting the more sensational aspects of the black American experience, Burnett has always presented a sober, balanced alternate view of the black working class. He has been showered with honors over the years - including one of the MacArthur Foundation genius grants and the Library of Congress' selection of Killer of Sheep for its National Film Registry - but Burnett is still hustling for jobs.
Last week he was at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, where Killer of Sheep was screened. I contacted him via email and we had this exchange:
I was very struck by the openness of the Los Angeles depicted in the film. I lived in Southern California for a few years and remember how provisional the desert cities seemed. (People drove dune buggies and motorcycles in the wasteland behind our suburban ranch house.) L.A. is much different now, but in asense it's still a fragile proposition - your film conveyed how rural it could feel, especially away from the city center, and how strange and proud these human animals were.
: A large part of L.A. was undeveloped when I was growing up. There were a lot of empty fields. There were vast stretches of land between cities. Just a few miles south of where I lived were a drive-in and a few horse stables where we would clean out stables for a ride. When it rained, part of the fields turned into swamps.
The fact that this is a student film suggests that you never expected many people to see it, much less have it become the kind of cultural touchstone it hasbecome. Given the (presumably) limited aspirations you had for the film, does it hold up for you? I'm sure you must be proud of it, but does it puzzle you that the film has received the acclaim it has?
: I'm not sure why the film has gotten the response that it has. As you stated, the film was a student project made at a time when there wasn't a means to distribute a film like this. I thought it would have a specialized audience that was interested in improving life in the black community. The film was made for people who have the means to ask themselves how can one improve [the character] Stan's situation? I'm certainly pleased that there is an audience for the film and it has gotten good reviews. I would be feeling bad if it had gotten bad reviews. I don't know if people who review the film understand why the film was made. I would hope that the reviewer would talk in terms of how it relates to other films thatdeal with social issues.
Conversely, the lack of commercial aspirations and expectations must have allowed you a sense of freedom - do you wish you could have the same degree of freedom you had with Killer of Sheep now that you've got a career and obligations?
: It is hard to make a film with total freedom because the money to make the film is coming from people and companies that are looking for a return on their investment. From the word go, there is an obligation to show how the film will be marketed and who is the audience. Each party that funds a film has its concept of the work that compromises your vision. The art is in negotiating through all the madness attached to the production.
: I was also struck by the pragmatism of the characters, the dignity of their day-to-day experience, the subtlety of the political subtext, which - given the times and the relative youth of the filmmaker - seems remarkable. These aren't radicalized people; the community depicted seems very much aligned with Nixon's silent majority. They're concerned about the problems in front of them rather than revolution. I think all your movies are wonderfully subtle in this way; there's a political component, but you seem to recognize the primacy of private life.
Most of the people I grew up with were concerned about working to take care of their family and their responsibility. One was always conscious of one's responsibility even though at times one failed. People had experienced the worst in life, racism and such, yet they never gave up. Their belief in God played a large part in keeping chaos from taking over. There was a strong belief in heaven and hell. The extended family concept played a big role. The family was a whole. I just remember people were always arguing about family issues more than anything.
: The Watts depicted in Killer of Sheep in some ways remindsme of a small Southern town. I'm sure you've thought about that, I'm sure that's the way it was. But is there anything significant about the apparent Southernness of these characters? You could see them as a kind of Southern diaspora, or exiles in "paradise."
First of all, the North was not a paradise. L.A. was the same as being in the South, and in fact, the South was much better in many ways. In L.A., the community was made up of the second wave of migrants from the South. We had people from every state in the South populate a small area in L.A. That was the unique part. Unlike the South, where the majority of the people living next to you were from the same state and county, L.A. had a very diverse community in that sense, because families from Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia were all livingin the same area. There was an interesting exchange.
: Most people who've heard about Killer of Sheep have heard about the amazing jazz score you put together and the subsequentlegal problems that kept it in limbo for 30 years. But is there anything else you'd like to say about the restored print?
I'm very pleased that the film was restored because in the past, the prints were so bad that screenings were a nightmare to me. The before [the restoration] versions had scratches and frames missing, dirt marks and sound issues. The prints now really help the film.
MovieStyle, Pages 39, 44 on 07/20/2007