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When it rains:

Celebrating Charles Burnett

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Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection

A 2-disc set from Milestone Films featuring Killer of Sheep (1977, 80 minutes, B&W) with a commentary track with Charles Burnett and Richard Peña; cast reunion video by Ross Lipman; trailer. Also, Burnett’s second feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1984, both 115-minute and 82-minute versions, color); and the short films Several Friends (1969, 23 minutes), The Horse (1973, 13 minutes), When It Rains (1995, 13 minutes) and Quiet As Kept (2007, 5 minutes); plus liner notes by Armond White.
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    DVD review by Eric Dienstfrey

        Titling Milestone’s two-dvd set is Charles Burnett’s debut feature, Killer of Sheep, a portrait of a black family amidst the violence, drug use, poverty as well as humor, love, and wisdom of the Los Angeles inner city. For me, regrettably lacking a strong foundation in the black cinematic tradition, I can only compare the film to similar takes on the realism genre, films such as John Cassavetes’s Faces, Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, or even Richard Linklater’s Slacker. These films together, and with others like them, are in conversation with each other about the search for honesty and the bypass of exploitation in cinema through low-budget means. And Burnett’s contribution to the dialectic involves his editing images of a father’s slaughtering of sheep during the day in between episodes of the family’s everyday life during the night and weekends. The violence on the screen acts as a commentary on the Los Angeles ghetto, strikingly similar to how Rainer Werner Fassbinder would a year later use images of a slaughterhouse to comment on the life of a transsexual in his In a Year of 13 Moons.
        Though in Killer of Sheep, Burnett goes one step further by setting up parallels between how the father compartmentalizes the violence of his job with how we compartmentalize images of black working-class neighborhoods. It’s a sly, political bite at the viewer that surely ups the ante of similar attacks on audiences by Dusan Makavejev in Sweet Movie. That is, if the reading of the film is correct. Again, knowing little about black cinema, and knowing that Burnett focuses a great deal of his attention on his own black identity, using the language of white filmmakers to interpret this particular director’s film may be misguided. Or maybe someone like myself isn’t supposed to completely understand Killer of Sheep.
        Also in the collection is Burnett’s second feature, My Brother’s Wedding, available as both the original 1983 ‘rush’ edit and the revised 2007 director’s cut. Like Killer of Sheep, the film is a portrait of a black family in the inner city of Los Angeles, though it contains a more normative and less subversively structured subtext. In the film, a young adult (aptly named Pierce) struggles with conforming to the expectations of his working class parents, with his brother’s marriage to a woman with shallow priorities, and with his loyalty to self-destructive friends. By the end of the film, Pierce must choose between standing in his brother’s wedding or being a pallbearer at a funeral, two events that manage to bridge all three crises in Pierce’s life. There is a bit of literary expression in the final shot, where Pierce holds a wedding ring, a symbol of Pierce’s own role among the two halves of the black community, but otherwise the film is a straightforward tale meant for easy accessibility.

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    Killer of Sheep

        These thoughts reflected my initial reaction to the films. After stepping back from the literal text and images for a few weeks, my reading of them has changed. I've become transfixed. Both My Brother’s Wedding and Killer of Sheep are not really narratives as much as they are documentaries about the films’ actors and actresses, who are themselves members of Burnett’s community and thus the very subject of the two works. The amateur acting, shoestring budgets, location shoots, and relaxed narratives tell a story of an ignored community coming together to create art. The films capture each time an actor decides to add levity to an improvised moment, or each time they stumble through a few lines of dialog that appear to be too awkward for the actor to personalize. We see each of their decisions, and even more voyeuristically, we peer into their imagination as they pretend to love each other, pretend to hate each other, or pretend to be an entirely different person. Sometimes we see a moment or two that is intended to be a document, such as Burnett’s own toddler singing to herself, but the rest of the text lies within what is unintentional. We may not see the members of this community in their true nature as they make sacrifices for the sake of their loved ones (I’m sure Werner Heisenberg, if he were a film critic, would argue that such an observation is impossible), but we see this community as it dresses up and performs commentary on itself without financial reward, done as a hobby or on their free time.
        It’s reminiscent of this paradox, that nonfiction has the potential to sacrifice honesty and exploit its subject when finding a narrative, whereas fiction has the potential to uncover truth simply by the admission of a fabricated narrative. With this in mind, there is a level of honesty in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and My Brother’s Wedding that most independent filmmakers strive for, but which few succeed in capturing. However, what makes these films worthy of your time is that because they have been restored for DVD as well as for theatrical runs, and because they have been reviewed with a certain degree of mythical praise (metacritic’s collection of reviews rates the film higher than Raging Bull and Do the Right Thing)—which in turn has surely made Charles Burnett even more aware of his accomplishments—then I doubt that the facets of life that these films capture will ever come close to being recreated by this extraordinary filmmaker.
        Mythical praise? Maybe.

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    Eric Dienstfrey writes about film at Filmbo’s Chick Magnet.