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BAD GIRLS

You won’t find any coy young things in Katrina del Mar’s new show Girls Girls Girls. The photographer and filmmaker, who has been compared to Kenneth Anger, is known for documenting women (often her badass friends from the Lower East Side) who are lean, mean, and seriously tattooed. Her short film “Gang Girls 2000,” about rival gangs of women in the city, starring Kari Krome of the Runaways and the performance artist Kembra Pfahler, earned del Mar acclaim as a rising artist to watch. Continuing her exploration of tough-as-nails women, her new show at Participant Inc. includes a clip from her short film “Surf Gang,” handmade covers for pulp-fiction paperbacks (one is titled Wild Girl of Brooklyn), and photographs of women—flashing knives, flashing brass knuckles, flashing breasts—who don’t like to play nice.

Tuesdays-Sundays, 11 a.m. Starts: Jan. 24. Continues through Feb. 17, 2013

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‘Benefit Concert for Anthology Film Archives’

Kenneth Anger, 83-year-old auteur of experimental cinephile favorites Scorpio Rising and Lucifer Rising, will play the theremin tonight with occasional film producer Brian Butler for their collaboration, Technicolor Skull. They describe it as a “magick ritual of light and sound,” which is perfect considering this event is a benefit for the folding-chair art-house movie bastion Anthology Film Archives (though Skull’s music is definitely experimental noise and musique concrète). Also performing tonight are Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, Moby, and the Virgins, so regardless of the evening’s benefit status, it will be a night to remember in all its brightly colored glory.

Wed., May 19, 8:30 p.m., 2010

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(Kenneth) Anger Management, at Anthology

Aside from cursing Roger Ebert’s prostate six years ago, what has Kenneth Anger been up to lately? The recent DVD editions of his classics have cemented his status as a godhead of postwar cinema—not that it was ever in doubt. His enchantment has also breached the white cube. Like the art world’s belated celebration of Jonas Mekas, Anger’s dark star has been rising in places like the Whitney, where pride of place in the 2006 Biennial went to an installation of his work, and P.S.1, where a retrospective of his canonical films is now on view—on video.

Local cinephiles largely balked at the P.S.1 show, imported from Germany’s Künstlerhaus Bremen, where the womb-like plastic curtains, video screens, and floor-level elements rejiggered the celluloid magician for the gallery space. Film snobbery is, as ever, at play in the beef, and not without reason: Witnessing Anger’s voluptuously stylized films well projected on a good print remains one of the cinema’s transformative encounters.

Setting aside the fact that he supports the P.S.1 contextualization (co-curator Klaus Biesenbach confirms that Anger was “very appreciative” of the installation), Anger is now—deal with it—essentially a video artist. For some years, “A Film by Anger” has been a misnomer, as evinced by the two-hour program of recent work, all on video, screening this weekend at Anthology Film Archives.

As if in response to his recent retrospectives, most of the new titles function as a memorial of one kind or another—a look back in Anger. Half the program qualifies as sentimental marginalia. The Man We Want to Hang (2002) and Brush of Baphomet (2009) offer slideshows of the paintings and drawings of Aleister Crowley. Elliott’s Suicide (2007) is a poignant, uncomplicated eulogy for the departed songwriter Elliott Smith. My Surfing Lucifer (2008) dashes hopes of a sequel to the magisterial Lucifer Rising (1970–1980), presenting a straightforward homage to a surfer buddy catching waves to “Good Vibrations.”

Sportier yet is program highlight Foreplay (2008), a portrait of soccer lads at practice. Delivering on the eroticization of its title, this flurry of taught limbs, choreographed routines, and ball play, charged with intermittent bursts of club techno, suggests a California riff on the hieratic fantasias of Claire Denis’s Beau Travail—or the setup for a gay-porn orgy.

The longest, most ambitious of the new videos is Ich Will! (2008). The culmination of 10 years’ archival research, this ecstatic montage of Nazi youth daringly bids to recoup the élan vital of fresh-faced proto-fascists. Scored to Bruckner bombast, the carefully calibrated montage organizes horseplay, bonhomie, calisthenics, and rituals of discipline into a queer fantasy of halcyon homosocialism. The mood darkens through increasing regimentation and abstraction, climaxing in the mechanized spectacles of mass Nazi rallies. Ich Will! documents the manufacture of raw material into product, innocence subsumed by ideology.

The magic, it must be said, is decidedly subdued in late Anger, though Mouse Heaven (2005) revives something of the master’s impish touch. “I’m Your Puppet,” croons 1960’s r&b duo James & Bobby Purify over an animated array of Mickey Mouse memorabilia. Advancing Anger’s enduring fascination with Hollywood as “matrix and adversary,” in the words of film scholar P. Adams Sitney, Mouse Heaven surveys the Mouse as robot, automaton, simulacrum, and secret agent of control.

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The Queer Issue: Gay Motorcycle Clubs in New York

Something unexpected pops up while I’m riding bitch on a motorcycle: an erection. I’m on the first run of the season to Cold Spring, New York, with members of the City Cruisers, one of two gay motorcycle clubs in New York City. It’s a cool, gray morning as seven motorcycles make their way past groups of spandexed bicyclists along Route 9W toward a leisurely lunch in the sleepy Hudson River Valley hamlet. The frequent stopping and starting—first in city traffic, then at traffic signals—lends a sexual rhythm to trying to hold on to the 600-pound street Harley and the black-jacketed driver in front. Each jerk of the brake brings crotch to ass and makes hanging on during white-knuckle acceleration an absurd Kegel-style exercise in trying not to slide off the end of the backless passenger seat.

But even without all the bucking, doesn’t a sexual response to a motorcycle seem apt? Consider such über-gay signifiers as Marlon Brando’s low-slung muir cap in the 1953 film The Wild One; outsize sexual organs in Tom of Finland’s jodhpur-clad cops; and Kenneth Anger’s description of his 1964 film Scorpio Rising (“Thanatos in chrome and black leather and bursting jeans”).

For gay men, taking to the open road has never been a straight path, but rather what tattooed Cruisers president Paul Yannuzzi likes to call a journey of “twisties.” The macho gay male archetype first gunned its throttle as a rejection of 1950s suburban conformity, when the first gay motorcycle clubs were formed. Empire City Motorcycle Club, the country’s first gay organization for which a motorcycle was required to join, was founded in New York way back in October 1964—five years before Stonewall. The macho archetype peaked with the mustachioed post–gay liberation clones of the 1970s, but motorcycles remain an integral part of the mystique—witness all the porn shot with a motorcycle as a prop. Since then, the hyper-sexualized, leather-clad biker has gone the way of the sexual outlaw, as “gay” has come to mean less an outsider than a pillar of the community, and “daddy” no longer an older macho man but an honest-to-Pete father.

Despite the name—a pun on the national gay pastime—the Cruisers are a case study in gay mainstreaming. They were founded as—and remain, first and foremost—a recreational club that sees motorcycling as a sport, and a solo one at that. Even their annual trip to the notorious Poconos campground Hillside finds most members opting out of any promised bacchanal. Sex, in fact, was the reason that the Cruisers emerged from Empire City as a splinter organization 13 years ago. “Empire City was a traditional leather motorcycle club,” Paul Jeanneret, one of the original Cruisers who broke off from Empire City, explains. “They were much more involved in the leather community, and we really wanted to be a club that was focused around the riding and not so much around the leather activities at other clubs.”

Mark Wind is about the riding, too, but even more about the destination—especially when that destination has “leather activities” on the bill. The treasurer of Empire City, Wind joined in 1975, when the club was already more than a decade old. A psychologist and interfaith minister, he still has an obvious affinity for the leather scene.

Wind fondly recalls roaring up to the old Ramrod, a bar on the West Side Highway, on the back of a hog in the early 1970s, and turning more than heads. “Back then, it was pre-HIV, so the worst thing you could get was something you needed a shot for, or A200,” he notes. Over the years, the group has lost many members to AIDS. But attrition has taken a larger toll, especially the formation of the breakaway Cruisers in 1996. Empire City currently has only seven or eight members, including associates, to the Cruisers’ 40.

The two groups are currently fighting over who will follow the Sirens, the women’s motorcycle club known as “Dykes on Bikes,” who have been opening the Gay Pride March since 1986. So how did a female bike club come to represent LGBTs on bikes? Candida Scott Piel, who ran the organization that puts on the march during the mid-’80s, says that placing the gals’ bikes at the head of the March was a purely logistical decision. Motorcycles tend to stall in stop-and-start traffic. “If there was drama, it didn’t come across my desk,” Piel says. “It was strictly about who was organized enough to come to a training so we could tell them how they’re supposed to tune their engines. The male bike clubs never reached out to us; the women’s did.”

Besides, back then, men’s motorcycle groups were happy to march with the leather contingents. “There were a lot of bike clubs,” Piel notes, “but there weren’t that many that were actively biking.” Wind, too, recounts a bygone era of “motorcycle clubs,” whose members dressed the part while never riding, much less owning, hogs.

Today, both clubs are all about the motorcycles, which is why they require all members to have one. “Everybody avoids someone on the back,” LaCapra, an architect and Cruisers member for the past seven years, says. “I think a lot of them have boyfriends, but I don’t usually see the boyfriends. It’s a way to get away and think. It’s a good way to get into your own head. It’s nice that you’re with people, but you’re not really with them.”

In Wind’s office, framed pictures of his Harley Road King surround a photo of his partner, who seemed only to squeeze into the frame because he’s perched on Wind’s hog. When a member of the Cruisers fishes a photo from his wallet and beams proudly, it’s not of a boyfriend—it’s of his bike.

“It’s really about the riding, meeting up and going on the ride, then going out to dinner,” LaCapra says. It’s a world away from the Hell’s Angels image still cherished by many straight bikers. If there are queer bad-boy bikers, they are a dying breed. “The older guys—the ones who started it—are more into the leather,” LaCapra agrees.

He also sees any sort of sexual response to biking culture as something that’s typified by an outsider-looking-in gaze, and one that won’t last. And what about that hot flash I experienced on the Cold Spring ride? LaCapra empathizes, but not a lot. “It’s very stimulating,” he says, shrugging. For him, it’s less about sexual frisson and more about mechanical vibrations. “You can just throttle and go super-fast. It’s like having your own roller coaster.”

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Anger Management

There are some artists who live through their artwork, and then there are some, like avant-garde film director, occultist, and scandalmaker Kenneth Anger, who simply are art. In his first major survey at a U.S. museum in more than a decade, P.S.1 examines the early works of Anger’s extensive oeuvre, including the 1947 homoerotic Fireworks (about which Anger once explained: “This flick is all I have to say about being 17, the United States Navy, American Christmas, and the Fourth of July”); the psychedelic Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954-66); and Scorpio Rising (1963), considered to be one of the first postmodern films and an influence on the work of David Lynch and Martin Scorsese. Fans of early-’70s rock especially won’t want to miss the short film Lucifer Rising, starring Marianne Faithfull. Upset with the soundtrack Jimmy Page recorded for the film, Anger replaced Page with Bobby Beausoleil, an incarcerated associate of the Charles Manson family, who recorded the entire score in prison.

Mondays, Thursdays-Sundays, midnight. Starts: Feb. 22. Continues through Sept. 14, 2009

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Radiohole and Ivo van Hove Show Their Flicks Tricks

Most Broadway theaters don’t serve popcorn. More’s the pity. They don’t offer nifty reclining seats. They don’t show previews of plays to come. But a trip to the theater can increasingly resemble a night at the movies. Whereas Hollywood used to pillage the stage for film ideas, those roles have since been reversed. Recent Broadway years have seen adaptations of, among others, The Graduate, The Celebration, The Full Monty, various Disney cartoons, two Mel Brooks films, and two by John Waters. (We still hold out hope for a Pink Flamingos musical.) This fad won’t end soon—the next several months will greet the Broadway openings of To Be or Not to Be, Billy Elliot the Musical, and Shrek the Musical.

Off and Off-Off Broadway, many avant-garde theatermakers have preciously incorporated film and video into their work—the Wooster Group, the Builders Association, Big Art Group, Richard Foreman, and the denizens of 3LD among them—with greater or less success. And a few artists like John Jesurun have attempted to apply the techniques of film—the close-up, the quick cut, the fade—to the stage. But this fall will see two notable plays based deliberately on films: Radiohole’s Anger/Nation—which draws on the work of cult filmmaker Kenneth Anger—begins performances this week at the Kitchen, while Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of John Cassavetes’s Opening Night will play at BAM in December. (A third play, derived from Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, would have just finished its run had MGM not sent its director a cease-and-desist letter prior to the premiere.)

Radiohole, a sybaritic company known for its gloriously untidy performances, was attracted (in the words of member Eric Dyer) to “the spirit of decadence in Anger’s films . . . his figures are all elevated, heightened, exalted—they are gods and goddesses.” Their piece contrasts this decadence with the severity of temperance crusader Carrie A. Nation. While Radiohole looks to Anger for thematic inspiration and aesthetic insight, Van Hove will use the whole of Cassavetes’s screenplay. The director describes his fascination with Cassavetes as “a love story that started when I was very young,” fueled by Cassavetes’s “merciless but tender” attitude toward his characters. Van Hove felt that Opening Night—the story of a Broadway actress undergoing a psychic breakdown—gave him the material “to make theater about theater . . . in a very profound and sincere way.”

Adapting films to the stage requires more than selecting an alluring auteur. Technically, theater has nothing on film: It can never replicate montage, artful camera angles, CGI effects, etc. Theater directors compensate for this lack in various ways. Van Hove, for example, has commissioned a single set that cleverly conflates stage, backstage, and hotel room. Tellingly, both productions make use of film and video, live in the case of Opening Night, prerecorded in Anger/Nation. The Radiohole show uses video shot by So Yong Kim, Brad Rust Gray, and Iver Findlay that, says Dyer, allows them to do all sorts of “nifty things.” Van Hove has a less playful approach. He says that the filmed close-ups he projects onto the back wall “enhance the live experience the way a mask in Greek tragedy did in ancient times.”

But while film can conjure a sense of intimacy, theater is intimate, allowing actors and audience to share the same room. Van Hove says that with “actors live onstage, there is unity of time and space, which creates a very direct and physical energy.” Radiohole performer Maggie Hoffman puts it rather more bluntly: “We stink, and we are wet to the touch, and we are in your face in a way film can never be.”

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GRAB A HATCHET

At the close of a Radiohole show, the stage typically overflows with spilled booze, food, sweat, and a welter of half-clad and overly lipsticked bodies. So, no, you wouldn’t call this performance collective especially puritanical. But in their latest piece, Anger/Nation, they’ve honed in on one of America’s most famous prudes, the hatchet-wielding temperance crusader Carrie A. Nation. In this play, Radiohole—with guest performer Iver Findlay—mixes up a cocktail of one-part Nation and one-part cult (and occult) filmmaker Kenneth Anger, a confirmed sybarite. They’ll serve it up with “miniature floating video monitors, Post-it notes, licorice, and a healthy dose of fairy dust.” That’s one heck of a garnish.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wed., Sept. 24, 8 p.m. Starts: Sept. 11. Continues through Sept. 27, 2008

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Anger Me

Could there be any more pitiful irony than that cinematic godhead Kenneth Anger, visionary master of the dark arts, has been trapped within a slapdash blue-screen-and-talking-head documentary that could barely past muster as a DVD bonus feature? Anthology can’t be blamed for running Anger Me, since Anger is far too important to cinema (or American counterculture, for that matter) for their programmers to pass it up. But there’s little here that will inform the true avant-fan, and much sloppy filigree that will annoy. Aside from a brief introduction from Jonas Mekas (shot in Anthology’s office), Anger Me consists of a single extended monologue from Anger himself, chronicling his Hollywood childhood (when, he claims, he played the part of the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt’s Midsummer Night’s Dream), then passing through the making of each of his films, from the adolescent eroto-explosions of Fireworks to his final great work, the Bobby Beausoleil–scored Lucifer Rising, and ending with a coda on his recent document of Aleister Crowley’s paintings, The Man We Want to Hang. Though much of the material will be familiar to anyone who has read the various tomes covering Anger’s career—or seen the skillful raconteur himself in person—a few rarer tidbits do emerge: Anger’s re-hand-tinting of a print of
Battleship Potemkin for Francis Ford Coppola, for example, in order to return a single flag to its original red hue. But the documentary’s persistent counterpointing of brilliant Anger films with wretched canned doodle-pop is an affront to everything holy. One of the most important artists of the last century deserves far better than this: Anger Me will anger you, too.

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Under the Influence

The Summer of Love that gives its name to the Whitney’s current survey of ’60s psychedelic art was always a fantasy—indeed, the LSD-fueled gathering of the tribes in San Francisco was the moment when fantasy ran rampant.

Everything then was Now. The late ’60s brought the 20th century’s last utopian, future-oriented vanguard. Videotape was poised to supplant 16mm film; the notion of “expanded cinema” superseded that of “underground movies.” Andy Warhol bridged the gap when he began screening his films on walls, ceilings, and people as part of his “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” shows. Some imagined that such total immersion would create a new art of mind-altering sensory bombardment—instead it was effectively massified at the disco.

Other visionaries, taking their cues from Ken Kesey’s mixed-media “Acid Tests,” imagined that the next step in total cinema might be pharmaceutical. Why shoot a movie when you could manufacture a pill and have a vision projected inside your head? In the meantime, there were 16mm films designed to cleanse the doors of perception.

Some psychedelic movies were environmental. One of the earliest, James Whitney’s computer-generated Lapis (1963-66), gets its own gallery in the “Summer of Love” exhibit. A raga-scored Brownian-motion mandala with concentric force-fields that might be understood as an expanding- contracting model of the universe, Lapis is sufficiently hypnotic to neutralize the pounding chirp of “Tomorrow Never Knows” emanating from a neighboring installation. Jordan Belson’s Samadhi (1966-67) also rates a gallery. Described by its maker as “a documentary of the human soul,” the film’s lime-green, electric-tangerine melting-molten abstractions variously suggest a mysteriously concentrated aurora borealis or a luridly vaporous eclipse.

Objects for contemplation, Lapis and Samadhi are the purest of psychedelic movies. The Whitney’s daily film program offers other examples—John Stehura’s Cibernetik 5.3 (1965-69), a farrago of pulsing noise and oscilloscope patterns, and the zappy Rorschach blobs of Pat O’Neill’s 7362 (1965-67). But few head movies were completely abstract. The solarized patterns in Chas Wyndham’s Airborn (1968) are periodically resolved as rock ‘n’ roiling orange-and-purple mushroom clouds. And, however kozmic, many of the era’s films are Manichean spectacles, a war in heaven featuring the era’s two key icons: The B-52 death bomber is countered by the positive energy of the gyrating hippie chick who, emerging from the moire—patterned scribble-scrabble in Stan VanDerBeek’s 1970 “electronic collage” Film Form No.1, is an obligatory trope in virtually every head film.

Paul Sharits’s Piece Mandala/End War (1966) is the show’s most realized psychedelic synthesis—a stroboscopic flicker film in which a naked couple shifts positions on a repetitive series of color fields. A lesser example, Jerry Abram’s Eyetoon (1968) is a mishmash of superimpositions, animations, and pixilated country roads that ends with the belligerent
cri de coeur, Fuck For Peace. Made without rules, Eyetoon is quintessential hippie art. Freedom in the ’60s definitely included the freedom to make bad movies. If there was a psychedelic film aesthetic, it was just that image “flow” trumped montage, and music ruled.

Kenneth Anger’s 1963 Scorpio Rising was the first underground movie to appropriate Top 40 pop. Four years later, rock was a holy sacrament and rock musicians were shamans. Bob Cowan’s 1968 Rockflow features a gaggle of glamorous solo dancers fluttering their fringes to the Chambers Brothers’s sockadelic “In the Midnight Hour.” A more legendary film, Robert Nelson’s suavely fragmented Grateful Dead (1967) documents the band performing “Sitting on Top of the World.” Nelson not only pulverizes the image but the music as well. Full of brain-jarring, same-image superimpositions, Nelson’s DMT Hard Day’s Night actually cleared the Whitney screening room.

A few movies, grouped together here under the rubric “Acid Visions,” purport to represent the LSD experience. Are these trips meant to be universal or individual? Storm de Hirsch’s double-screen Third Eye Butterfly (1968) dutifully sets eight images to a percussive jazz score; John Hawkin’s impressively psychotic LSD Wall (1965) is a claymation that, obsessively mixing Navajo patterns with blatant sexual metaphors, introduces itself as “some observations made while sitting on a public toilet in the Times Square subway station while under the influence of a certain hallucinogen.”

Some psychedelic documentaries celebrate the self; others blatantly impose the maker’s subjectivity on the scene. Ben Van Meter’s mondo freeform SF Trips Festival, An Opening (1968) uses a gallery show to advance—or perhaps parody—the epoch’s prevailing East Coast—West Coast dialectic, expressing a wholesome hippie distaste for the echt degenerate Warhol, whose Elizabeth Taylor silkscreen is superimposed into obliteration. Jud Yalkut’s Turn, Turn, Turn (1965-66) is a super verite—mess, with the filmmaker pivoting around some sort of kinetic art show. (Every be-in love-in group-grope demo included some nerd with a camera—sometimes even me.)

The Whitney devotes an entire program to Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (1967), a kicky explosion that celebrates the mad midday frugging of Carnaby Street “dollygirls,” along with body painting, peace marches, and female fans storming the stage where Mick Jagger sings “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?” But the supreme evocation of late ’60s mishigas is Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother (1969). This fetishistic exercise in countercultural chaos is as dense an assemblage as Scorpio Rising, but, populated by all manner of would-be sorcerers and set to Jagger’s grating sound loop, it’s a more sinister experience. The scene switches back and forth between San Francisco, London, and the recurring image of a helicopter disgorging an endless flow of U.S. troops onto a Vietnamese rice paddy. Anger isn’t making a movie so much as casting a spell—it’s the art of mind over matter.

The academic equivalent to Invocation of My Demon Brother is Larry Jordan’s The Sacred Art of Tibet (1972), a commissioned film, in which electronic growling overwhelms explanatory voiceover and the artworks themselves are “animated” through aggressive zooming and flash-frame superimposition. Reality is a “magic show,” the narrator informs us. And magical thinking was then perceived as a form of political action. (The Summer of Love was actually the Marriage of Heaven and Hell: Newark and Detroit burned while the Haight preened in the klieg lights of total media attention.) Thus the Whitney’s “War, Protest, and Counterculture” program includes Piece Mandala/End the War as well as the show’s preeminent mind-fuck acid-flashback, Third World Newsreel’s classic rabble-rouser cf1 America (1969).

The apparitions in this rough and ready riot-compilation, racing through classic rock chestnuts “Gimme Shelter” and “Fortunate Son” to climax with the keening crescendo of Steppenwolf’s heavy-metal concerto dirge “Monster/Suicide/America,” are more fantastic than the monsters of Tibet Buddhism. Not just Black Panthers but ultra-left Viet-vets proclaim themselves “hip to imperialism.” Those gyrating chicks are in the street. And who are the white high school revolutionaries earnestly rapping about “capitalist run-of-the-mill bullshit”? What pill made them say that?

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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.