A bittersweet sonnet of disconnected L.A. life

Posted: May 11, 2007

Two working stiffs at opposite ends of a kitchen table, tough guys cradling fragile teacups in their hands, resembling a refined version of van Gogh's Potato Eaters as they converse about how the heat of the porcelain reminds them of their wives' foreheads during lovemaking.

Thirty years ago, UCLA grad student Charles Burnett scratched together $10,000 and made his bittersweet film sonnet, Killer of Sheep, on weekends in Watts, still resembling a war zone more than a decade after the 1965 riots and fires that razed the institutions of the Los Angeles neighborhood. It is the most influential movie you've never seen, deeply affecting many artists and experimental directors who saw it on the museum circuit in 1977 and 1978.

In this black-and-white episodic chronicle of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), an abattoir worker, Burnett, best known as the filmmaker of To Sleep With Anger, combines an old master's eye for composition with a DJ's ear for the American jukebox, editing image to music with his unique jazzy rhythm. Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth" serves as a commentary on Stan's emotional detachment from his wife, family and community. Paul Robeson's rendition of the hymn "Going Home" meditates on the double meaning of the word: Is home the tired house Stan lives in, or is it the ultimate destination of all mortals?

This unconventional narrative is about the disconnect between what Stan feels and what he sees, his difficulty reconciling the blood and death of the slaughterhouse with the vibrancy and life of the neighborhood, with children jumping from roof to roof like bouncing angels. In the film's most disturbing segue, slabs of mutton dangling from meathooks are like the children's limbs dangling off the rooftop.

Everything about Burnett's film has multiple meanings, even its title. Stan is a killer of sheep. But who is the killer of the conformist creatures penned up in inner-city Los Angeles?


Killer of Sheep **** (out of four stars)

Written and directed by Charles Burnett, distributed by Milestone Film & Video. With Henry G. Sanders and Kaycee Moore.

Running time: 1 hour, 23 mins.

Parent's guide: No MPAA rating

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl.

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