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Abbatoir of Dreams: Killer of Sheep

Years ago, there weren’t any student films. There weren’t any film students so there could hardly have been student films. Yes, there have been university film programs for quite some time now, and students have been submitting (usually short) films in fulfillment of program requirements for decades. But in an earlier era they weren’t taken seriously outside academic settings.

In the film industry, directors, writers and producers didn’t come from film schools. Traditionally they worked their way in, when they could, from the theater, journalism and eventually from television, or from catch-as-catch-can, lowly assistantships and craft apprenticeships. Magazine editor and industry historian Peter Biskind has written that when Francis Ford Coppola got to UCLA in 1963, “…the film department was a ghetto for slackers and shirkers. USC’s was housed in an old stable. UCLA’s was quartered in Quonset huts left over from World War II.”

In fact, B-movie maestro Roger Corman’s low-budget unit at American International Pictures was more of a film academy for ambitious youngsters (like Jack Nicholson, who worked there as a writer and actor) than any of the film schools.

All that changed with the 1960s youthquake, the war in Vietnam, the success of Dennis Hopper’s supposedly countercultural film, Easy Rider, the whole 1960s gestalt.

It was in the aftermath of this cultural and industry upheaval that UCLA grad student Charles Burnett made his 1977 thesis film, Killer of Sheep, a work that became an underground legend.

The National Society of Film Critics has put it on its “100 Essential Films” list, and it was among the first films to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. But for 30 years almost no one could see it. It only existed as a few aging 16-millimeter prints. Early efforts to gain wider distribution ran aground on Burnett’s inability to clear rights to the music he’d used on the soundtrack.

Now, after a six-year-long effort, Milestone Films, a restoration, revival and independent distribution outfit, has succeeded in freeing Killer of Sheep from this encumbrance and releasing it to theaters (with the assistance of director Steven Soderbergh and the Sundance Institute). (One song, Dinah Washington’s recording of “Unforgettable,” couldn’t be used, so another Washington performance, of “This Bitter Earth,” was substituted.)

Burnett’s film is a loosely organized series of mainly short scenes, vignettes and shots depicting the life of one family (no surname is provided) in Watts, L.A.’s African-American ghetto, in the mid 1970s. Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) is the father of two kids (the film doesn’t give their names) and the husband of a pretty, care-stressed wife (Kaycee Moore), also unnamed. His soul-corroding, demanding and low-paid job at a sheep slaughterhouse has rendered him edgy and fatigued—mentally and physically. He yearns for a way out, even a modest improvement.

Burnett follows the activities of these four, and of Stan’s friend Bracy (Charles Bracy) over a period of weeks during the summer. Much of what occurs is portrayed in a dramatically uninflected, unframed, even seemingly haphazard style. There is little concrete narrative.

Burnett relied more on mise-en-scene, on recurring or similar shots and motifs. The characters don’t advance in a story pattern. The two real subplots, both involving Stan’s family’s modest efforts at a breakthrough—a used car engine purchase and road trip out of the city—end badly.

There are several relieving instances of humor or tenderness, but a feeling of resignation accrues. Burnett seems to have been aiming for a kind of bleak lyricism, imagistically depicting one aspect of African-American life. He went on to make a small number of works about life in black America, including The Glass Shield (1994), a police drama with Ice Cube and Elliot Gould.

Some of the film evinces the straitened circumstances in which it was made—at a cost of $10,000, over a year of weekend shoots, with an amateur cast. Scenes sometimes end too abruptly, or are edited together in a rather patchy fashion. Once or twice, Burnett steps out of his emotional distance and makes too emphatic a gesture, as when we hear Paul Robeson singing that sappy, syrupy 1940s political anthem, “The House I Live In,” behind shots of black kids playing in a rock- and rubble-strewn lot. The lyrics’ praise of American inclusiveness (“All races, all religions—that’s America to me”) serves a rather callow, blunt-edged irony.

But this is an unusual lapse. For the greatest part, Burnett’s film is a bleak, Neo-realist meditation on life in an oppressed and alienated, quietly angry country, and by implication, the order which maintains it.