Saturday, October 08, 2011

Killer of Sheep

0. Pointlessly Long Introduction (new day rising)

Not to step on Dregs' toes here, but I got to scratch several movie itches simultaneously last night. I moved to Oakland almost exactly three and a half years ago, and for the first few months, out of work and aimless, wrestling with life-challenged depression1 as a decided departure from my Portland-based stasis-stifled-self-centered depression2, I spent most of my time drinking daylight coffee by the quart and reading the Times. It was there, probably, that I first heard of a 1977 student film called Killer of Sheep that had (a) blown minds upon its release and (b) gone unreleased & undistributed for decades due to music-rights issues.

Some years later, TWBGITW mentioned the film--I believe in the context of boys receiving bike-directed violence--as something I literally had to see.

Combine these two itches--either surely sufficient--with my oft-voiced one-liner about living in Oakland:

I like it partly because I get to use Berkeley & SF as resources without having to live in either one of them.
One of the key Berkeley resources is the Pacific Film Archive, which has expensive tickets and a tiny screen, but superb taste.

1. Killer of Sheep (everything falls apart)

PFA's presentation was stark and transitionless: no trailers, no promotional materials. They turned the lights off and rolled the film.

Deliberate or not, it was a flaw-free introduction to the experience: with no buffer, you're thrown into deep intimacy: tight closeup on a boy's face, with a bellowing voice dressing him down. Slowly you become aware the source of the voice is an undershirt-clad trunk in the foreground.

The words concern loyalty, solidarity, violence, and threat. The boy is told to stand up for himself and his brother right or wrong, or face consequences at home.

Another unbuffered transition: children at play. Now and throughout the film you see that this play is in ruins environmentally, essentially prop-free in terms of equipment, and constantly, constantly, violent.

The next transition feels less jarring, perhaps because the film's rhythms and stylistic unity are asserting themselves by now. You're in a kitchen, watching a man work from a deeply odd camera angle. Eventually the man knocks off and joins his friend for some coffee, talk, and dominoes. He's half-haunted, he says he doesn't sleep, he says he's done wrong, but "nothing that would make the Devil blush". And it is this man we mostly follow for the next hour and change, as he goes to work, mopping up offal in an abbatoir, as he endures a Sisyphian odyssey to secure a motor for his car, as he moves through and is completely enmeshed in a run-down world without resources of any discernable kind.

This is a poverty never seen on film, made rawer and rougher by the man--Stan, we discover--'s insistence that he's not poor, not really: he gives to the Salvation Army--gives--and..."you want to see go look at Winston's place..." where they're eating wild greens from a vacant lot and huddling around the oven for heat.

2. Killer of Sheep (hardly getting over it)

Plot and character play a significant role in this picture. The greatest impacts, though, came from three aspects of theme or mood.

  • Stan's quiet and isolation is so profound, and so intimately presented, that his immobility, his almost unmoved and unresponsive countenance in the face of his wife's sexual needs, is painful to watch. It cuts even deeper as you watch his wife's determined, practiced primping.
  • The primping of the mother is recapitulated in the film's many daughters--and half the movie is seemingly given over to meticulously detailed ramifications of Wordsworth's "the child is father to the man". Jocular jockeying among the men mirrors the everpresent wrestling and horseplay between the boys; though all the children we see are sexless, the genders are pretty thoroughly divided and already battering away at one another--as when a group of girls drive off a single boy, hurling his bike wheel and venom at his sob-wracked fleeing back. Watching the somewhat aimless kids slowly congeal into their parents, with a newly pregnant, shy young woman toward the end of the piece, or when Stan's son snarls at his tiny sister "I need some money", chills, freezes, saddens.
  • Hardest yet to take throughought the near-total grimness and deprivation of the film and its milieu is the hammered-thin but not annihilated hope maintained. The primping counts here, and Stan's insistence that he's not poor, and these moments find endless echoes, as a handout is politely, sadly, turned down, or as everybody gets dressed up and heads out in a finally-repaired car for an afternoon in the country, an endeavour exactly parallel to Stan's grinding, doomed, quest for an engine. Or when Stan's little girl says to another, who's been missing a lot of school "but you'll fall behind". Exhaustion and effort are everywhere in the movie, and more than a little abdication and abandonment. The experience of watching this is split raggedly between wanting to cry "it's futile, you're doomed, give up" and gasping "you can't stop there".

3. Killer of Sheep (you can live at home now)

Maybe it's not hard to sum up Killer of Sheep:

if you like movies, black people, or true things, you need to see this film

Which probably explains why it went unseen for three decades.

4. Outro (keep hanging on)

Further reading:
New Yorker DVD of the Week
New Yorker reissue notice
NYT DVD notice
NYT reissue notes

--Fat, seeing Badlands & Mean Streets tonight, too

1Three representative pieces. And one example of my mind absolutely splintering with isolation and frenzied self-directed fury: hard for me to read this one.

2In lieu of citing this, I will merely gesture toward this.