Monday, August 26, 2019

Killer of Sheep Paved The Way For A New Age of American Indie Cinema

Charles Burnett is an inspiration to aspiring filmmakers everywhere. With only $10,000 to his name, Burnett spent two years in the early 1970s filming his debut directorial effort Killer of Sheep. Though legal problems related to music employed in the film prevented it from getting a general theatrical release (it played at film festivals in the late 1970s), it finally got released to the public in 2007 and has since become regarded as an important historical artifact in the history of independent cinema. Burnett's accomplishments here feel like a precursor to legendary 1990s indie filmmakers like Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez and Cheryl Dunye who also went out and made deeply personal cinema on shoestring budgets. Even if it didn't get a conventional theatrical release until the 21st-century, the very existence of Killer of Sheep paved the way for then-future cinema by showing what was possible with independently produced filmmaking.

So what exactly is the plot of this groundbreaking movie? Well, the title refers to Stan (Henry G. Sanders) who works at a slaughterhouse. He spends his days killing sheep (hence the title) and yearns for something more out of life. The precarious financial situation him and his family, which consists of an unnamed wife (Kaycee Moore) and two children, are trapped in, though, make it difficult for him to leave the emotionally trying but financially rewarding job he's stuck in. Killer of Sheep follows Stan trying to find other ways he can make money for himself and his loved ones while occasionally we get digressions involving Stan's kids playing around with other children.

Such sequences seem divorced from the primary plot but they're crucial in emphasizing the crushing plight of the adults in the story. The kids in Killer of Sheep tend to be blissfully unaware of the adult world around them. They can run into robbers without realizing what illegal activity they're engaging in while an early scene shows a youngster putting his head directly beneath the wheel of a train while his friends push on the train and try to make it move. None of them realize or care about the danger they're putting their friend in. Youthful naivety shields them from the realities of life, but none of the adult figures in Killer of Sheep have that luxury.

Stan is constantly aware of all the pressures of adulthood while he's getting reminded of the finite nature of his own mortality thanks to his job that has him constantly interacting with the specter of death itself. The depressing nature of reality is a similar prominent presence in his life, Stan can't even pick up an extremely important engine from his relatives without some sort of impromptu accident leaving that engine destroyed. Burnett's script depicts the life of Stan as one of disappointment as constant as the naivety in the Killer of Sheep sequences focused on children. The contrasts between these two elements in the film help to make each of Stan's newest letdowns really land with a crushing impact.

On a similar note, the potent nature of scenes depicting Stan's most downbeat moments makes one poignant sequence depicting Stan and his wife slowly dancing all the more emotionally affecting to watch. It's a subdued scene (all shot in an extended single take) depicting the two characters just holding each other while soft music plays but all the sorrow in Stan's life is able to vanish for just one moment as these two lovers find solace in each other's arms. Burnett's brilliant decision to set this dancing against an almost entirely empty black backdrop (a window with some light trickling in is the only distinguishable feature in the background) so that all of our attention can be focused on just these two characters in the foreground enhances the already powerful underlying emotions of the scene.

Right after the two dance, Stan departs and we watch his wife just sitting by herself briefly before the scene concludes. It's a small moment but the characters facial expressions that deftly communicate so many complex emotions is one of the numerous cases of Kaycee Moore delivering subtle but no less exceptional work in this role. Though her character may not even get a concrete name in Killer of Sheep, Moore's work in the part of Stan's wife lends the character plenty of varied personality. I especially love the hints Moore drops in her performance, like moments where she struggles to connect with her husband or what to do with her kids, suggesting that Stan's wife is struggling with her place in the world just like her significant other is.

The way Moore's performance makes her character so riveting contributes heavily to how the supporting cast in Killer of Sheep is just as interesting as its protagonist. This is a movie about Stan, no question about it, but one of the best parts about it is how the supporting characters all feel so richly defined that it's like they're in their own standalone story that Stan's tale briefly intersects with. You could make a whole movie about Stan's wife or Stan's eccentric relatives or the kid characters Stan's offspring play with. Best of all, the way Burnett is able to weave a whole world in Killer of Sheep through such fascinating characters plays nicely into Stan's struggle, you get a sense of the scope of the larger world he's trying to find a better place in. If you're like me, the way Charles Burnett explores that struggle on both a thematic and visual level in Killer of Sheep proves to be endlessly fascinating to watch.

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