March 30, 2007

Interview. Charles Burnett.

Killer of Sheep "Though its film stock had nearly turned to vinegar by the time UCLA stepped in with a timely restoration, Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep is of a vintage that only gets better with age," writes Susan Gerhard, introducing her interview with the filmmaker at the main site. "Its neorealist approach to the life of a neighborhood is rich, but the surprise is that it's also as fresh as the day it was made 30 years ago."

"There are first films like Citizen Kane or Breathless, which, as radically new and fully achieved as they are, unfairly overshadow an entire oeuvre," writes J Hoberman in the Voice. "And then there are first films, perhaps even more radical, which haunt an artist's career not through precocious virtuosity but because they have an innocence that can never be repeated.... Charles Burnett's legendary Killer of Sheep, which was finished in 1978 and, despite its enormous critical reputation, is only now getting a New York theatrical release, belongs with these.... In retrospect, it can be seen that the two great independent features of the late 70s were Killer of Sheep and Eraserhead." There's a nice moment further in, as Hoberman looks back on a 1978 "blurb filed by a callow part-time third-stringer."

Updated through 4/1.

David Edelstein in New York: "[W]hy do so many of its black-and-white images feel as if they've always existed - as much a part of our collective unconscious as Walt Whitman or the voice of Paul Robeson?... Killer of Sheep can be seen (and reseen) as a great - the greatest - cinematic tone poem of American urban life."

"[A]n American masterpiece, independent to the bone," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "Mr Burnett has a wonderful eye, and his ability to create harmonious compositions from the free-form chaos of the streets brings to mind the work of photographers like Helen Levitt and Robert Frank, best known for his collection The Americans.... [T]here is more to neo-realism than formalist gestures; context counts too, and much like the characters in Rossellini's Open City, Stan and his family are casualties of war. This may be Mr Burnett's most radical truth-telling. In Killer of Sheep, the characters' identities as African-Americans are material and existential givens, while poverty is the equal-opportunity destroyer."

"And what an inexpressibly sad, strange and lovely movie it is," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "I think the writer and filmmaker Michael Tolkin was right when he said that if Killer of Sheep had been made 20 years earlier in Italian, it would be dissected and argued over and memorized in every film-school classroom. But the world Burnett captures on the streets of Watts, circa 1976 - this was his thesis film at UCLA, shot on weekends, over the course of a year, for about $10,000 - is at least as distant to most contemporary viewers as the postwar slums of Rome or Naples."

Armond White throws down the gauntlet again in the New York Press: "Prediction: Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep will not get the same self-intoxicated 'best picture of the year' acclaim that critics gave to Army of Shadows last year, even though Killer of Sheep - a far superior movie - is also decades-old and finally receiving belated theatrical release in the United States. The difference is that Killer of Sheep doesn't allow viewers to congratulate themselves on bygone political stances. Although set in the mid-1970s 'present,' Burnett's classic film is very much a distillation of the social and spiritual effects of American poverty (and racism). That's the ever-present subject critics used Jean-Pierre Melville's WWII soporific to escape."

"I worry about the outsized expectations that come with thirty years of buildup and the inevitable "it was good, but..." lobby conversations that will surely follow, and I'm loath to simply heap more praise upon it," worries Chris Wisniewski at indieWIRE, "not that it doesn't deserve it, but because the film's brilliance is so singular and modest. In a moviegoing culture that valorizes the contrived self-importance of Crash and the glib indie 'charm' of Little Miss Sunshine, Killer of Sheep feels resolutely other, fashioned with an observational, almost verite aesthetic, a loose, episodic narrative, and a complicated, unsentimentalized approach to class, race, and family."

"A neo-realist silent comedy talkie with a post-Watts riot backdrop," writes Jesse Sweet in the L Magazine.

Earlier: Dave Kehr in the New York Times and Stuart Klawans in the Nation.

Updates: "Seeing Killer of Sheep is an experience as simple and indelible as watching Bresson's Pickpocket or De Sica's Bicycle Thieves for the first time," writes Dana Stevens at Slate. "Despite its aesthetic debt to European art cinema, Burnett's film is quintessentially American in its tone and subject matter. If there's any modern-day equivalent for the movie's matter-of-fact gaze on the ravages of urban poverty, it's the HBO series The Wire."

Scott Macaulay runs an excerpt from James Ponsoldt's interview with Burnett that'll be appearing in the upcoming Spring issue of Filmmaker.

ST VanAirsdale talks with Burnett for the Reeler.

Update, 4/1: Mary McNamara covers the return of Killer of Sheep from a local angle for the Los Angeles Times.

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Posted by dwhudson at March 30, 2007 10:04 AM


thanks for the links! "killer of sheep" is such an astonishing movie.

people who can read German (or use babelfish) may wanna take a look at this interview in German news paper "taz" (february) as well. ekkehard/ reviewed "killer of sheep" some time earlier.

Posted by: thomas at March 30, 2007 11:47 AM

Many thanks, Thomas!

Posted by: David Hudson at March 30, 2007 11:58 AM