Screaming Quietly: Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep
Killer of Sheep

Format: DVD

Release date: 20 October 2008

Distributor: BFI

Director: Charles Burnett

Writer: Charles Burnett

Cast: Henry G. Sanders, Kaycee Moore, Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett

USA 1979

80 mins

In 1977, after the Civil Rights movement had ground to a desperate halt and Sidney Poitier’s squeaky clean portrayals of integration had given way to the rapid boom and bust of Black Exploitation, a graduation film from UCLA film school marked the emergence of one of America’s most critically celebrated, yet seldom screened, filmmakers. After over thirty years, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is being shown in the UK as part of a major retrospective of his work, with a DVD release of the film planned for later in the year. So just what is it that has finally made people sit up and recognise the film for the astonishing hidden treasure it always was?

Killer of Sheep screens at the BFI Southbank on 5 October 2013. Charles Burnett regrets that he is unable to leave his current production in Algiers to attend this event, but there will be a Q&A via Skype after the screening. For more information visit the BFI website.

Set in a working-class district of South Central LA, familiar to many contemporary cinema audiences, the film revolves around the life of an insomniac, slaughterhouse worker Stan, his family, assorted friends and acquaintances and the rigours of their everyday lives. Yet, despite its location within an urban environment that has now become all too recognisable as the battle-torn backdrop in a plethora of ‘Hood’ movies, Burnett presents the viewer with a subtler and infinitely more complex vision of the American underbelly, suffused with humour, anxiety, compassion and despair, often present in the same instant. It’s not that Burnett attempts to circumvent harsh issues such as drugs or violence – the de rigueur urban theme; he just doesn’t revel in it and neither does he glorify it. It’s often there, lurking around the corner or casting a shadow, but instead of being mired in its immediate, physical manifestation, Killer of Sheep carries the psychological weight of a broader systemic violence, all too frequently ignored, though usually the catalyst for the kind of social eruption that has blighted minority communities across Los Angeles throughout its history – the Zoot Suit riots of 1942, the Watts riots of 1965 and the LA riots of 1992 being the most notorious examples of the city’s simmering ethnic tensions reaching boiling point.

Read Joel Karamath’s interview with Charles Burnett here.

Burnett, who grew up in the Watts district of LA, also worked as cinematographer on the movie, shooting the film over an indeterminate number of weekends, with a largely ad hoc crew. Filmed with the eye of an insider and in a manner that manages to chronicle without romanticising, this is not a rose-tinted vision of race, class or the inner city; instead, operating within an organic plot structure, Burnett’s camera and script both manage to capture the full diversity of a very localised community by exploring the nuances of (Stan’s) life in a manner usually overlooked by the broad brush strokes commonly used in Hollywood productions. In one scene, Stan questions the very notion that he might even be considered poor, by countering that he actually gives stuff away to charity, highlighting the relative aspects of issues such as wealth and class within such a social microcosm.

Killer of Sheep also brings into question the traditional depiction of patriarchy and machismo seen in many interpretations of minority cultures, such as Black Exploitation cinema. Stan’s twilight existence is exemplified by a reluctance to reciprocate his wife’s advances throughout the film, which acts as a precursor to a number of scenes in which women take over male positions of power. His near-somnambulant state is like an American update of the old Chinese proverb; he’s a man that has a nightmare about working in a slaughterhouse, only to wake and discover that he may be a slaughterhouse worker having a nightmare about being a (black) man in contemporary America; burdened, in an era of change, by a history that has frozen him in time.

One of the film’s early scenes, showing a group of young boys play-fighting, is reminiscent of Burnett’s own childhood memories, of the urban environment he grew up in, but also reveals one of his major cinematic influences. Not happy with the traditional portrayals of the inner cities and its inhabitants offered by the mainstream, Burnett instead turned to Italian neo-realism, for its aesthetic as well as sociological qualities. The barren landscape on which the boys pitch their battle resembles that of many post-war Italian cities, as seen through the eyes of neo-realist directors such as Vittorio De Sica, allowing Burnett to comment upon the stagnant social conditions in many parts of LA, over a decade after the ravages of the Watts riots. The use of other common neo-realist devices – monochrome photography, improvised acting, child and non-professional actors – feeds into the organic plot structure and generates a greater sense of realism than would a traditional linear process.

Recently, Burnett directed an episode of the US documentary series The Blues, underlying his deep interest in the cultural significance music has played in shaping African-American identity, not just as a positive form of artistic expression but also as a warts-and-all cultural and spiritual outpouring. The soundtrack to Killer of Sheep, a vibrant mixture of jazz, blues and soul, forms the almost melancholic cadence which life is played out against. A one-time trumpet player, Burnett drew from his own very personal musical recollections to evoke what he describes as the way in which music ‘becomes part of your subconscious’.

Despite Burnett personally playing down any overt metaphorical credence to the Sheep in the film’s title, it’s almost impossible, in retrospect, not to juxtapose the proverbial lambs going to their slaughter with the plight of a disenfranchised minority. The mid-70s formed a remarkable conduit for African-Americans, between the euphoria and promise of the Civil Rights era in the 60s and the despair and anger so inherent in the music and films of the hip-hop generation of the 80s, a period in which the suicide rate of African-Americans rocketed from being the lowest, in 1970, of any ethnic group in the USA, to being the highest by the end of the decade (see Cornell West’s Nihilism in Black America for more on this subject), a nihilism that seems to form the basis of so many contemporary films, but which Burnett, almost single-handedly, has constantly sought to counter in his body of work.

Killer of Sheep reminds modern audiences, raised on the sudden impact of ‘shoot ’m up’ action movies, that you can say just as much with a whisper as you can with a scream, without the risk of deafening your listener to future comments.

This article was first published in the summer 08 print issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Joel Karamath

Watch the trailer for Killer of Sheep:

The Weightless Drift of the Claustrophobic Soul: Solaris


There is little new, if anything, to say about Andrei Tarkovsky’s haunting science fiction masterpiece. As deep, mesmerising and involving as the ocean from which the concept of Stanislaw Lem’s novel emanates, the film remains both poignant and peerless. Now a recent reissue of Eduard Artemyev’s original soundtrack on Russian imprint Mirumir has brought this eerie and unsettling score back into the frame. Solaris has spawned various musical interpretations, from Artemyev’s original and re-recorded version, to the Cliff Martinez score of Steven Soderberg’s reimagining, and the Ben Frost/Daniel Bjarnason rescore; almost all are remarkably strong.

Cold and claustrophobic, yet driven by palpable soul and feeling, Tarkovsky’s film has a clear understanding and appreciation for the beating heart of Lem’s novel. The theme of human nature that is so integral is reflected in the soundtrack’s centerpiece, the melancholy keys of Artemyev’s synthesized version of Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639). Played during the opening credits, references to the Earth and the elegiac and iconic waltz in weightlessness, it becomes an ode to humanity, much like in other Tarkovsy films that use Bach, of whom he is a renowned admirer: ‘there are composers and then there’s Bach’.

Outside of Bach, the rest of the soundtrack is concerned with spectral drones and abstract sonics, but it still wrestles with the relationship between humanity, nature and the cold environment of space. Artemyev was challenged with creating sounds that come from nowhere and disappear into nothingness. Echoes and reverberations of familiar sounds are distinguishable among the electronic – bells, animals and choral music appear against the circuit boards, spherical corridors and the pulsing surface of the planet. The non-immediate influence of familiar natural sounds against the mechanical drones astutely reflects Gibarian’s invention, attaching ‘strips of paper to the air vents… At night it sounds like the rustling of leaves.’

One of the most notable aspects of the score is the incredibly sparing use of it in the film. We hear vignettes littered throughout, while the space in between reflects the environment, and enhances the emotion of the characters and the effects of the sounds when they are used. The first third of the film is mostly concerned with the sounds of nature and the silence that surrounds them, with Kelvin’s spaceflight and glimpse of the space station being the first introduction to the score.

Tarkovsky proclaimed that during his career he wished to make a film entirely without music; to him, film should be a capable language unto itself, with music filling the gaps where this language faltered. This is evident in the sparing and subtle use of sound in Solaris; but when listened to as a standalone record, Artemyev’s score is as poignant today as it was revolutionary when it was produced. Like a Soviet precursor to Aphex Twin’s ‘Selected Ambient Works II’, the electronics were composed on the Soviet ANS synthesiser, a complex photoelectronic instrument that uses a glass plate disc system. The synthesiser was destroyed shortly after, and Artemyev’s soundtrack stands as a timeless representation of the instrument, a recreation of which now stands in the Glinka State Central Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow.

The equally essential soundtracks to Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975) and Stalker (1979) have also been re-issued on 12 inch vinyl by Mirumir.

Alex Glen