Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett / U.S., 1978):

Poet and peasant, as von Suppé has it, theme and key of Charles Burnett's symphonic treatment. Aching experience along the virginal gaze (Pather Panchali), the slap administered in infancy is felt still in adulthood by the pensive insomniac (Henry G. Sanders), "working myself into my own hell" in the Watts ghetto. The grinding job is in the abattoir, ushering lambs toward hooks and hosing down bloody floors, just one of several rituals of quotidian suffocation. The black neighborhood has its toughs and moochers and dandies, a pair of acquaintances show up at his porch to wax primal on struggle ("Animal has its teeth, and man has his fist") until his wife (Kaycee Moore) chases them away in an astute adjustment from Cabin in the Sky. The "large industrial opportunity and buoyant spirit" W.E.B. DuBois once observed in Los Angeles has since atrophied into a sandy wasteland, yet a touch of Vigo locates human beauty and humor in the battered environment. Eccentric gags (bulky blokes with tiny tea cups), peculiar angles and incongruous cues (Rachmaninoff, Scott Joplin and Earth Wind & Fire throb in the soundtrack), all adding to Burnett's bending of mundane and momentous. A Laurel and Hardy routine sums up the comedy of futility (a car engine barely misses the camera as it tumbles off the back of a truck), though Sisyphus' fatigue is warmed by the baby daughter's smile at home. Indeed, children are the carefree light amid grown-up gloom—mock-fighting in the rubble, throwing rocks at trains, leaping from rooftop to rooftop and spinning tops as Paul Robeson rumbles, "that's America to me." Faulkner and the blues, husband and wife waltz together and drift apart to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth," Le Sang des Bêtes and the hangdog mask. Burnett dissolves from a pregnant bulge back to the slaughterhouse, and suddenly his stark and tender poem contains the whole wide world. With Charles Bracy, Angela Burnett, Eugene Cherry, and Jack Drummond. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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