Loading...

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
Comments

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.

Related Stories

  • Chinatown Crackdown

    City Attorney Mike Feuer announced Friday a crackdown on the sale of fireworks across the city. Since June 20, his office, in conjunction with the Fire Department, Port Police, and Department of Street Services, has filed four criminal cases against shop owners in Chinatown and the Toy District, confiscating 1,000...
  • Top 3 Events: Big Bite Bacon Fest, Doner Revolution Pop-Up + Fried Chicken Festival

    Big Bite Bacon FestSince we will not collectively ever tire of bacon, and since everybody who went to the San Diego County Fair for Big Bite Bacon Fest probably is out of that food coma, the sizzling pork adventure will travel north for its debut at the Queen Mary in Long...
  • 10 Fun L.A. Things to Do With Kids That Don't Suck For Grownups

    Who's cool? Who still knows what's up? Not you. You used to rock and roll all night and party ev-er-ee day. Now you're home by eight o'clock on school nights, and weekends too. Because you've got kids.  At least, that's how it feels during the dark moments. The moments in...
  • 9 New Alt Art Spaces 4

    With so many artists living in L.A. and the local art schools churning out hundreds of eager graduates every year, new alternative art venues are opening all the time. In the past year, for example, 356 S. Mission Road (a downtown exhibition hall, community space and indie bookstore opened by artist Laura Owens...
  • Chinatown Store in Danger 2

    Opened in 1952 by Gim and Choy Fong, Fong's gift shop is one of the oldest and most iconic shops on Chung King Road, the tucked-away Chinatown plaza that's been largely populated by art galleries in recent years. Fong's is the place where you can find anything from antique Chinese...

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.

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 20
  2. Thu 21
  3. Fri 22
  4. Sat 23
  5. Sun 24
  6. Mon 25
  7. Tue 26

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office Report

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Slideshows

  • 20 Neo-Noir Films You Have to See
    The Voice's J. Hoberman was more mixed than most on Sin City when he reviewed it in 2005, but his description of the film as "hyper-noir" helps explain why this week's release of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has us thinking back on the neo-noir genre. Broadly speaking, neo-noir encompasses those films made outside of film noir's classic period -- the 1940s and '50s -- that nevertheless engage with the standard trappings of the genre. As with most generic labels, there isn't some universal yardstick that measures what constitutes a neo-noir film: Where the genre might begin in the '60s with films like Le Samourai and Point Blank for one person, another might argue that the genre didn't find its roots until 1974's Chinatown. Our list falls closer to the latter stance, mainly featuring works from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s. Though a number of the films mentioned here will no doubt be familiar to readers, it's our hope that we've also highlighted several titles that have been under-represented on lists of this nature. --Danny King

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Emmy-Nominated Costumes on Display
    On Saturday, the Television Academy and FIDM Museum and Galleries kicked off the Eighth Annual exhibition of "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" with an exclusive preview and reception party. 100 costumes are featured from over 20 shows representing the nominees of the 66th Emmy Awards. The free to the public exhibition is located downtown at FIDM and runs from today through Saturday, September 20th. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.

Now Trending