Charles Burnett's debut feature film Killer of Sheep didn't work for me. Perhaps it's because the lack of knowledge on the socio-economic climate of the time made this movie seem a little alien. Or perhaps I didn't grasp the many subtexts that the movie presented, in exploring the lives of the working class African Americans who seem to be a little too far from the American Dream which most of us are familiar with. Or maybe it showed too much of the drudgery of routine in the life of the poor, that frankly, nothing much happens, not because it's by choice, but because of the lack of resource to do something about it, to break out of the circle. In not having the all too standard narrative structure, I thought the incidents played out, like life itself, in nuggets of episodes happening simultaneously, which shifted attention quite frequently on issues that it might have wanted to touch upon.
It sets the spotlight on Stan (Henry G. Sanders) and his family, as we look at their lives almost voyeuristically, as if peering at everything there is to be seen in their household, neighbourhood, and the people they interact with. In fact, we start off smack (pardon the pun) in the middle of parents disciplining their kids, before watching the kids themselves journey into their wonderland engrossed in the game they're playing.
From then on, it became a sort of every ingredient being thrown into the broth. We get to know Stan having to work at a slaughterhouse, but yet tempted by the neighbourhood liquor store owner to help her out. We know Stan doesn't make much, but he puts food on the table. We also suspect that Stan could be a revered ex-boy-in-the-hood who gets called upon by unsavory folks for a hit job. And he seems a little jaded with life, carrying this perpetual frown. But I felt that each of these (and more) interactions presented itself as is, without offering the lazy me any answers, leaving them quite frankly, open to interpretation and reading deeper into it for meaning. Like a friend of mine who likes to call himself the aggressive movie watcher, rather than to passively be fed by the obvious going around.
But it's not as dry as it sounds, with some patches of humour thrown in, but I'm quite unsure whether these were deliberate, or just part of the audience's amusement having to watch those scenes in question some 30 years later. The soundtrack filled with songs such as those by Louis Armstrong and Paul Robeson is a joy though, one which directly led to this movie's lack of screening because it didn't clear those rights.
Maybe, if opportunity presents itself again, I'll give Killer of Sheep another go. And in the meantime, I'll be reading up on the Watts Riots to bring myself up to speed with relevant material probably required to enjoy this movie a lot more, and in some proper context.
This evening's guest to present the movie is Matt Myers, a producer as well as the current Associate Chair at NTU Tisch School of the Arts Asia. He shared that Killer of Sheep was made some 7 years after the Watts Riots, and was shot during weekends over the course of one year. It's actually Burnett's thesis film, and cost about $10K to make. It was made with non professional actors, and had won the 1981 Critics Prize at the Berlinale Forum of New Cinema. In 1990 the US Library of Congress declared it a national treasure and inducted it into the National Film Registry, being one amongst the first fifty to be given this honour.
It was recently restored to 35mm, but the version screened today was from Digi-beta. But no matter, the Q&A/discussion session after the screening was a blast, given the myriad of viewpoints that peppered throughout the session, no less contributed by students from the Tisch School, some of them who could be renowned filmmakers in their own right, in time to come.
And before I end off, the World Cinema Series is a programme of the National Museum Cinémathèque and co-presented by the Singapore Film Society, and is a monthly screening of works by the boldest and most inventive auteurs in the history of cinema. This series charts both the significant and less discovered territories of cinema - from the early silent era to underground films, and new wave film movements around the world, by some of the greatest mavericks and artists of film. The Series will continue in 2008, with Radio On being the first in the lineup in the second Tuesday of January. Watch for it!