Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

The Old New Black Cinema: MOMI Celebrates a Movement

The so-called “LA Rebellion” that emanated out of UCLA in the late ’60s and ’70s was the pioneering stake on a genuine “black cinema.” Barnstorming “race films” of yore and contemporaneous blaxploitation were ghettos of cheap opportunism compared to these movies, a tributary of the “personal” indie-film waterway sourced from John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959). A revolutionary esprit attached to the movement, crossing vectors with the Black Power zeitgeist, even though it didn’t receive its defiant moniker until 1986, when prof Clyde Taylor put together the first retrospective for the Whitney—and even though it began as the university’s conscientious “Ethno-Communications” initiative, matriculating students of color in the hopes of channeling and ameliorating the hellacious racial tensions of the day.

The resulting films hewed so closely to their makers’ sense of racial authenticity and social truth-telling that mainstream culture, looming nearby in the form of Hollywood, all but ignored them, and the “Black Independent Movement” has been virtually cinema non grata ever since. This traveling survey excavates UCLA’s proudly maintained archive, providing a window on a rarely screened moment in the development of contemporary black film.

The knee-jerk launching spot is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), a searing and essential experience fashioned out of little more than L.A. poverty, the post-verite/post-Cassavetes Zeitgeist, and the filmmaker’s bedeviling sense of composition, ennui, and brute-lyric imagery. On the surface merely a mood piece about the dead-end existence of being American and black in the ’70s, the movie attains an inexplicable power, an almost primal thrust and mystery that suggests, to the willing viewer, millennia of godless desperation and the horrors of the food chain.

There’s no story, but there are people—mainly, Stan (Henry Gale Sanders), a poor slaughterhouse laborer whose life in the outer-urban wastes is in the process of bulldozing his pride and confidence. Burnett’s film proceeds from the very beginning as if every image and moment of Stan’s life is a mythic truth to gaze upon, and damn if it isn’t sweepingly convincing in the process. The action, for instance, of attempting to carry a disembodied car engine down a flight of tract-housing stairs has positively Sisyphean traction. It’s not a movie you pick dramatic highlights or even visual memories from; instead, it flows before you like a despairing folk song made real, a blues anthem older than movies or Burnett himself. Not properly released until 2007 (Burnett’s stirring soundtrack, which rivals Scorsese’s for Mean Streets in pioneering jukebox eloquence, was largely uncleared for rights), Killer of Sheep was nevertheless, famously, chosen as one of the first 50 films as part of the National Film Registry in 1990, defined as honoring and preserving movies that are “culturally, historically, or esthetically important,” a full 17 years before it was finally made available in any way for people to see.

Burnett worked as cinematographer on several of the other pivotal films here, including Haile Gerima’s Bush Mama (1979), a roiling screed with an oppressively didactic narrative (about a pregnant mother left on her own when her husband is unjustly imprisoned) but a raucous taste for Godardian tumult and collage, both visual and auditory. (Traces of Fernando Solanas’s hectic insurrectionary agitprop are also palpable.) Burnett shot and wrote, and featured his own children in, Billy Woodberry’s similarly seething and tragic Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), which like most of the Rebellion flicks, short and long, never takes its neo-realist eye off the grim socioeconomic reality of blackness. But as hypnotic and eloquent as gritty post-Godard ultra-realism is, perhaps especially now, the Rebellion’s terrain was still open range. Thus, Gerima’s first feature, made when he was still enrolled, Child of Resistance (1972), re-envisions black subjugation, and specifically the 1970 arrest and prosecution of Angela Davis, as screaming-mimi Theater of the Absurd. Jamaa Fanaka’s Emma Mae (1976) and Larry Clarke’s Passing Through (1977) both ironically interface with the tropes of blaxploitation, permanently muddying that genre’s waters before Quentin Tarantino even dropped out of high school.

But, years later, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) may still stand as the most radical stylistic departure, and the most inspired detour in black cinema—a ghostly memory-film about a Gullah family migrating from the Sea Islands in 1902, soaked in creole and aching with ancestral remorse. (Dash’s earlier shorts are on view, too, including 1977’s Diary of an African Nun, a moody and oblique visualization of the Alice Walker story.) One of a kind and a pungent lesson in originality for ethnographic filmmakers of every stripe, Dash’s masterwork made a splash two decades ago—it was the first feature by an African-American woman to get a theatrical release in America—and deserves to be more urgently remembered now.

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Nightjohn

Dir. Charles Burnett (1996).
It’s a kids’ film but a credible one—dealing explicitly with the domestic life of enslaved people and arguing, between the lines, for the sort of movies to which director Charles Burnett has devoted his life.

Sun., April 17, 2:30 p.m., 2011

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

To Sleep With Anger

Dir. Charles Burnett (1990).  
An ambitious attempt to fuse folklore and domestic drama, this may be Charles Burnett’s most original film—providing, among other things, Danny Glover’s career performance as an enigmatic trickster.

Thu., April 7, 8 p.m., 2011

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Killer of Sheep

Dir. Charles Burnett (1977).
Originally released in the virtual vacuum of the late ‘70s, Charles Burnett’s neo-neo-realist, post-Cassavetes account of a dreamy Watts butcher and his family gradually established itself as an Amerindie classic as well as founding text of the new African-American cinema.

Wed., April 6, 7 p.m., 2011

Categories
VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Killer of Sheep

Dir. Charles Burnett (1977).
Originally released in the virtual vacuum of the late 1970s, Charles Burnett’s neo-neo-realist, post-Cassavetes account of a dreamy Watts butcher and his family gradually established itself as an Amerindie classic as well as founding text of the new African-American cinema.

Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: Nov. 24. Continues through Nov. 28, 2010

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Bless Their Little Hearts

Last year, Charles Burnett’s 1977 debut, Killer of Sheep, finally got the theatrical release and large audience denied it for 30 years. Depending on Hollywood’s timetable or yours, this marvelous 1984 slice-of-life drama—written and photographed by Burnett and directed by his UCLA compatriot, Billy Woodberry— is either six years ahead of schedule for discovery or 24 long years overdue. Like Killer of Sheep, it’s an elliptical yet richly drawn black-and-white portrait of an African-American family man, Charlie Banks (note the initials), struggling to hold onto his flagging pride without money or fulfilling work. Since Charlie (Nate Hardman, in a crumbling edifice of a performance) hasn’t had a job in years, scuffling and scavenging to keep his marriage and family barely together, the situation in Woodberry’s film is even more grave than it was in Killer of Sheep—and yet, if anything, the balm of the blues and laughter here is even more restorative. The movie’s comedy is the humor of precise we’ve-all-been-there observation, as when Charlie’s little girl (Burnett’s own daughter Angela) finds an ingenious way to dislodge the bathroom faucet that her daddy has clamped tight. Its poetry lies in the exaltation of ordinary detail: the rings of gouged wood that once held kitchen-drawer pulls—touches that suggest not only the years of living and hard use that came before, but all those still to come. Given a spine of steel by Kaycee Moore’s blazing performance as Charlie’s seething wife, and a groove as deep as silt by a superlative soundtrack of gospelly R&B and jazz, Bless Their Little Hearts forms, with Killer of Sheep, a landmark diptych about work as the crucible of the American character—either in its abundance or its absence.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Lumet and Burnett

Sidney Lumet is no one’s idea of an auteur. “Lumet’s direction is efficiently vehicular but pleasantly impersonal,” Andrew Sarris decreed back in 1968, consigning the prolific Lumet to the limbo of “Strained Seriousness.”

Actually, no one is quite sure what to make of the 83-year-old director’s oeuvre. Film Forum’s three-week retrospective, “Lumet,” samples several strains. There’s the maker of middlebrow “mad as hell” blockbusters like Serpico (1973) and Network (1975), which kicks off the series in a new 35mm print. There’s the somber man of the theater, adapting A View From the Bridge (1962), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), and The Sea Gull (1968)—and pairing Marlon Brando with Anna Magnani to self-canceling effect in The Fugitive Kind (1959), from Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending.

The genre schlockmeister is represented by The Anderson Tapes (1971) and The Offence (1973)—both with Sean Connery, who gets to work both sides of the law—as well as Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Lumet’s Euro-art aspirations are present in Fail-Safe (1964), a nuclear-disaster flick with intimations of Antonioni, and The Pawnbroker (1965), which has been dissed as “Last Year at Auschwitz.” These days, Lumet is most appreciated for his New York City films, most notably Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and the crime-commission epic Prince of the City (1983); I have a particular fondness for those that seem to draw on Lumet’s roots in Yiddish theater, even when they’re based on Jewish novels, namely the comic Bye Bye Braverman (1968) and the tragic Daniel (1983). The retro includes Dudley Murphy’s 1939 One Third of Nation, in which the teenage Sidney plays kid nephew to slum goddess Sylvia Sidney; the man himself will make a personal appearance on February 11, in between screenings of Network. February 8 through 28, Film Forum.


Also: One of the most unusual careers in American movies began with a student movie that’s now generally considered a classic. Before Charles Burnett’s 1977 Killer of Sheep was revived last year, his lone critical success was the 1990 To Sleep With Anger, in which Danny Glover’s larger-than-life down-home trickster installs himself at the center of an uneasily middle-class Watts family. Anthology Film Archives’ week-long retrospective, “The Films of Charles Burnett,” includes both of these, as well as two of the thoughtful, formally inventive historical dramas that Burnett has made in the long stretch between features.

Warming by the Devil’s Fire (2003) was originally shown as part of PBS’s series The Blues, and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) is a movie about making a movie about the leader of America’s best-known slave rebellion. The unique trajectory of Burnett’s career has resulted in the release of his second feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1982), in a completed form. That’s also showing, along with Burnett’s lone commercial feature, The Glass Shield (1994). Miramax cut and dumped this unconventional policier a dozen years ago—perhaps Burnett’s new visibility will prompt the studio to release the original version. February 8 through 14, Anthology Film Archives.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES Living NYC ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

My Brother’s Wedding

African-American auteur Charles Burnett’s oeuvre has been so criminally underseen that the first official release of his 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep is looking solid to be this year’s Army of Shadows in critics’ best-of lists. And speaking of shadows, Burnett’s follow-up seems destined to live in those of his debut, another crime that began when the film opened to mixed reviews at the 1984 New Directors/New Films fest in a 115-minute rough cut rushed out by his producers. In all fairness, My Brother’s Wedding—finally presented properly in a new 81-minute director’s cut—is the lesser work: Bound to a narrative instead of Sheep‘s tone-poem spontaneity, its nonprofessional performances feel more noticeably scruffy, and even its of-the-era color palette looks dated when held up against the black-and-white timelessness of ’77. Still, Wedding is a treasure that demands to be unearthed in all its funny-sad tenderness. In South Central L.A., emotionally naïve Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas, as animated as a Ralph Bakshi toon) works in his folks’ dry-cleaning biz, roughhousing with his pop and generally floundering in his “romanticized view of the have-nots,” as his lawyer bro condemns. When his best bud Soldier, only days out of jail, suddenly dies in a car wreck, Pierce is torn between being a pallbearer or being the best man at you-know-what on the same day. Like its precursor, Wedding is most memorable for its suspenseful take on the mundane, as a playful tussle in a neighbor’s yard nearly ends in gun violence.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Scotland Bard

Scotland, as seen in the late Bill Douglas’s formidable cycle of shorts, My Childhood (1972), My Ain Folk (1973), and My Way Home (1978), is Beckett-bleak, hard, and colorless. This is “old Europe” indeed, unvarnished and looking its age, a world of battered furniture, cruel families, and cold facts. The filmmaker shot the trilogy, screening as part of Anthology Film Archives’s Douglas retrospective, in his hometown of Newcraighall, and found local villagers for the roles; for the main character of Jamie, who suffers through a life of biting poverty based closely on Douglas’s own, he cast Stephen Archibald, a preteen delinquent who had asked him for a cigarette at a bus stop. Over the course of the three films, as Jamie emerges from a resilient adolescence into a more uncertain, fragile manhood, we watch Archibald grow too. It’s a tight-lipped performance quavering on the brink of documentary.

Douglas’s withholding style can be likened to Robert Bresson’s or Charles Burnett’s, particularly the sparse use of sound that accentuates his lingering camerawork, drawing out the rough edges of reality. When dialogue does occur, the lonely words bear iron weight. In one scene, Jamie lies in bed in the dark, muttering into his pillow, “I want to die. I want to die. I want to die.” It’s a desperate mantra, a prayer spoken to no one, where the typically hardy lad reveals the spiritual sinkhole within.

In My Way Home, after Jamie joins the Royal Air Force, the cramped insularity of Newcraighall gives way to the expansive sands of Egypt. Like a cage-raised animal set awkwardly free, Jamie remains compulsively introspective, but Robert, an English airman at the same base, attempts to draw him out as the two become fast friends—the first such relationship in Jamie’s life. The magnetic charge between the two plays out as something very much like love—vulnerable, faltering, necessary—a depiction of male intimacy rarely seen on-screen.

In Douglas’s own life, as the documentary Bill Douglas: Intent on Getting the Image reveals, Robert’s real-world analog, Peter Jewell, remained a lifelong companion after their service together, forging the director’s longest and deepest human relationship. The pair shared a collection of antique movie memorabilia and, eventually, a home together. In interviews, Jewell clarifies that the queer pair weren’t actually gay—their life together, he says, was “everything but sexual.” The same could be said of many marriages, so that point might be moot.

Comrades (1987), Douglas’s only completed feature film, likewise deals with the complexities of bonds between men, but of a rather different stripe: It’s a mid-19th-century Empire-spanner (his “poor man’s epic”) about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, a band of British laborers who formed a pre-union “friendly society” in the face of economic exploitation, then faced arduous exile in Australia. The rough immediacy of the trilogy is lost in Comrade‘s lush color landscapes and strange period details, yet the odd blend of proto-Marxism and Merchant Ivory remains a compelling utopian vision.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

L.A. Story

There are first films like Citizen Kane or
Breathless
, which, as radically new and fully achieved as they are, unfairly overshadow an entire oeuvre. And then there are first films, perhaps even more radical, which haunt an artist’s career not through precocious virtuosity but because they have an innocence that can never be repeated.

This second type includes Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, John Cassavetes’s Shadows, and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures—impoverished productions all, shot on weekends over extended periods of time, pragmatic in their means, necessarily based on improvisation and consequently filled with rich, ingenuous mistakes. Charles Burnett’s legendary Killer of Sheep, which was finished in 1978 and, despite its enormous critical reputation, is only now getting a New York theatrical release, belongs with these.

Made while Burnett was a 33-year-old grad student at UCLA, Killer of Sheep is a study of social paralysis in South Central Los Angeles a dozen years after the Watts insurrection. The subject matter harks back to the heyday of Italian neorealism but Burnett uses the film language of experimental documentaries like In the Street, Blood of the Beasts, and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. (Like Anger, Burnett never cleared the rights to his extensive pop-music score—one reason why Killer of Sheep could not be commercially shown.) Sui generis, Killer of Sheep is an urban pastoral—an episodic series of scenes that are sweet, sardonic, deeply sad, and very funny. It’s a movie of enigmatic antics, odd juxtapositions, disorienting close-ups, and visual gags, as when a guy sitting in the front seat of a car reaches through the nonexistent windshield to retrieve the beer can perched on the hood.

Killer of Sheep has an improvised feel and a studied look—as if Burnett decided on his often unconventional camera angles and then set his mainly nonprofessional actors loose. Songs of innocence and experience collide. Even before the opening titles, the movie makes it clear that life (or maybe history) is apt to hit you upside your head. Much of the movie considers children at play, staging rock fights in a rubble-strewn lot or frisking around some derelict railroad tracks or, shot from below, jumping from roof to roof. The kids, who almost always travel in packs, have their own subculture—half seen through their imagination. A little girl affects a hangdog mask, perhaps in imitation of her father, Stan (Henry G. Sanders).

The movie has an unusual protagonist: Depressed, dreamy, always worried looking, Stan works in an abattoir (hence the title) and has two kids and a pretty wife (Kaycee Moore). She loves him but he’s curiously unresponsive—at one point they dance to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” then drift apart. Stan doesn’t smile and he has trouble sleeping. For much of the movie, he wanders impassively from one scene to another. To the degree that the movie has a narrative, it largely concerns Stan’s ongoing attempt to get his friend’s car together. In one lengthy scene, the guys buy a $15 replacement engine—the motor is an image of futility so visceral that, rolling through the movie, it positively ungathers its moss.

On the one hand, Stan’s neighborhood is a wasteland—devoid of commerce, isolated, and entropic. On the other, it’s filled with vitality or at least everyday madness. People scowl and scrap their way through ramshackle lives, wandering in and out of each other’s business—as when two guys dart on-screen lugging a stolen TV. The verbal jousting is often superb. (Language police should note that the zesty vernacular includes ample use of the N-word.) Neighborhood jivesters try to bring Stan in on their criminal exploits but he’s stubbornly uninterested. “I’m not poor,” he insists, “I give away things to the Salvation Army sometimes.”

Stan is just about the only character in the movie who has a job—and it’s the fact of the job, even more than its nature, that seems to oppress him. Intermittently he’s shown at work, hosing down the slaughterhouse killing floor. At one point, Burnett uses Paul Robeson’s pop front anthem “The House I Live In” to segue from an empty lot to the abattoir; Robeson’s “Going Home” provides the background for the sheep headed toward death. The bluntness with which Burnett employs music hardly detracts from the effect. This, as Little Walter reminds us, is a “mean old world.” Stan’s job brings him in intimate contact with the fate awaiting all living things. He is the reality principle. The only time he smiles—or nearly smiles—is when chasing those sheep who have dimly realized what might be in store for them.

However original, Killer of Sheep has had only a subterranean influence— primarily on Burnett’s UCLA colleagues (Haile Gerima, Billy Woodbury, Julie Dash), who were surely inspired by his ability to get the movie made. More recently, there have been the movies of Southern regionalist David Gordon Green, whose 2000 debut, George Washington, mined much of its eccentricity from Burnett’s film. But not even Burnett seems to have followed through on his youthful explorations; it was seven years before he completed a second feature, not that he has ever ceased working.

In the time since Killer of Sheep, Burnett’s made several mangled or unreleased commercial productions, a number of striking telefilms on African-American history, and one fully realized, exceedingly unusual, and underappreciated feature, the 1990 To Sleep With Anger. Given this stoical tenacity, it’s hard not to see Stan as a prophetic projection of the filmmaker.

In retrospect, it can be seen that the two great independent features of the late ’70s were
Killer of Sheep
and Eraserhead. Perhaps when someone writes the reception history of American independent cinema, it will be explained how and when Killer of Sheep—which had its original screenings at museums and underground showcases—came to be considered not just a good but a great movie, placed on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1990.

Clearly foreign film festivals had something to do with it—the movie won a prize at Berlin in 1981—as did the various black film series that booked it for years. It’s striking that, as a 16mm production, Killer of Sheep first appeared in the context of avant-garde cinema. When it opened in New York in November 1978, as part of the Whitney Museum’s ongoing New American Filmmakers series, The New York Times saw it as a study in “monotony and alienation,” and scored the filmmaker’s “arty detachment.”

That apparently was the movie’s lone notice. The closest Killer of Sheep received to a review in the Voice was the blurb filed by a callow part-time third-stringer:

Charles Burnett calls his well- observed first feature, made with nonactors in Watts, an ethnographic film. More a succession of linked images and anecdotes than a narrative, its power is in its accumulation of details and gesture. Burnett withholds judgment on his scuffling, self-absorbed characters, using a score that runs the gamut from Paul Robeson to Dinah Washington to Big Boy Crudup to comment on their lives. His hero works in a slaughterhouse but the film leaves little doubt that the real “killer of sheep” is America.

I hadn’t seen the movie again until this past month. As fresh and observational as it was 30 years ago, Killer of Sheep seems even more universal now. Today, I’d change my blurb to note that the killer of sheep isn’t only America, but life.