Killer of Sheep: The Best Film about Los Angeles 

May be the least-seen great film ever made in this country

Thursday, Oct 16 2003

You may claim that the best one is actually Sunset Boulevard just for the title and the swimming pool alone.  You may argue that it’s Chinatown for its incestuous history lesson, Point Blank for redefining how Hollywood shoots local architecture or Blade Runner for giving us rainy noodle shops and eloquent androids in the year 2019. But you would be wrong. When you think how these big-name movies have shaped the city’s image (and let’s add to their number The Big Sleep, Kiss Me Deadly, The Long Goodbye, Boyz ‘N the Hood and L.A. Confidential), two things quickly become clear: Nearly all the trademark L.A. motion pictures begin and/or end with murder (the same-old, same-old from the World Capital of Noir), and they’re more concerned with the idea of Los Angeles rather than the reality of life as it’s lived here.

The perfect riposte to such dark mythologizing is Charles Burnett’s luminous Killer of Sheep, a small miracle of human decency and exalted artistry. Shot on 16 mm for $10,000 with a non-professional cast, this clear-eyed, poetic portrait of South Central Los Angeles isn’t merely the most sensitive vision of an L.A neighborhood — Burnett looks beneath the cliches found in movies about inner-city gangbangers — it may be the least-seen great film ever made in this country. Although one of the first 50 American films chosen for protection through the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, it has never received distribution or ever been put out on home video. 

The title character, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), works at a Watts slaughterhouse to support his family the old-fashioned  way. While he’s filled with an admirable sense of pride (“I’m not poor,” he says at one point, “I give things away to the Salvation Army”), he’s worn down by the cruel nature of his work and a nagging sense of futility. He has trouble sleeping, rebuffs the affections of his wife (who burns for the intimacies they once shared), and seems cut off from his kids who spend the movie doing the things that kids do — yelling, bawling, building forts, riding bicycles like idiots and, in one scene of astonishing loveliness, leaping from one apartment building rooftop to the next. They’re like angels brought down to earth to frolic.  Yet there’s no flying away from these dispiriting, sun-lashed streets with their dilapidated buildings, jive-talking dudes, predatory shopkeepers and smart-ass crooks who don’t understand why Stan doesn’t join in their crimes. After all, God gave man fists for a reason.

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Burnett was not yet 30 when he shot the film, but he already boasted the instincts of a great artist. He gives us Stan’s South Central L.A. neighborhood in a precise, observant style that recalls Italian Neo-Realism, but kissed with the rigor of a Bresson, the gentle eye of an Ozu. Killer of Sheep wants to show us the truth about race, work and alienation, but for Burnett, such truth has infinite tonalities, countless shadings. We feel life’s radiant complexity in the violent beauty of kids throwing stones in the street, a woman zinging a would-be lothario with disdainful putdown (“You ‘bout as tasteless as a carrot,”) and the comic futility of Stan saving money to buy an automobile motor for $15 then accidentally wrecking it as he laboriously struggles to get it back home. And we feel it in the exquisitely heartbreaking scene when Stan embraces his young daughter as his wife looks on, wounded that, just seconds before, he’s again rejected her romantic overtures.

For all the clarity of his vision (the film doesn’t sentimentalize or demonize anyone), Burnett posseses what may be the rarest quality in American film — tenderness. It shines through the film’s haunting B&W images, his delicate handling of amateur actors and his haunting use of music, be it Louis Armstrong’s la-da-da warble on “West End Blues,” the ironic optimisim of Paul Robeson’s stentorian version of “My Country,” or Dinah Washington’s ravishing version of “Unforgettable” that plays over the final scene when Stan, just doing the  job that keeps his family alive, leads the sheep to the inevitable slaughter. It’s one measure of Burnett’s compassionate brilliance that he understands how killers and sheep can become one and the same.

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