Perambulating the Bounds

Monday, June 11, 2007

Killer of Sheep

This is one of those join the band wagon posts. My wife and I went out to see Charles Burnett's film, Killer of Sheep, at the Belcourt. Every single reviewer has raved on this film, and I have no dissent from that.

I'm not sure what I thought it would be, but it surprised me how non-narrative it was. There are events, but not really a story line. It's a few days in the lives of a working class black family in LA. These events provide a context for watching the rhythms of these people's everyday lives, whether it's some men negotiating to buy a motor or playin dominos, or kids engaged in perfectly random kid behavior. "Hey man, let's pile up these railroad ties." It also allows for beautiful black and white images -- like a stream of kids one after another leaping between two rooftops, shot from below.

The word that came to mind was "tone poem." It's hard for a film to pull off a poetic method of juxtaposing images. In film it is more likely to end up feeling like unassimilated clips.

There is a subtle arc and structure to the piece, like an abstract painting formed from minimal gestures in a limited palette. The film switches between scenes of the neighborhood lives of this family and their relatives, friends, etc., and scenes from the slaughterhouse where the main character works. Each of these elements has a subtle arc--the slaughterhouse scenes work up to the point where the sheep are killed--the preliminary scenes show what comes before and after. And the neighborhood and home scenes end with the character experiencing the slightest bit of relief from the emotional darkness that weighs him down. It's not much, he does not end up liberated or saved. It's just a point of release, a subtly flexed emotional arc.

The film is showing through the weekend at the Belcourt in Nashville. If you live here, go. If you're in another town, the film's website lists where and when it will be screened.

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