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“Killer of Sheep,” dir. Charles Burnett

April 22, 2010

A stunning work of naturalism. Make no mistake, this IS a student film, with the rough mechanics and conceptual lapses synonymous with student work, but historically and aesthetically, it’s a remarkable achievement.

It looks and feels very real, but it’s approach also seems very alien compared to other films shot in places like Watts. It’s tempting to compare it to Italian neorealism, but its hazy lyricism, plotless structure and loose interactions place it somewhere between Terrence Malick and John Cassavetes. Some stretches of the film even progress like a dream, and the eclectic choices populating the soundtrack reinforce this sense of surrealism.

Again, the film’s not a seamless experience – parts of it stumble, and several scenes are too clearly acted and (presumably) scripted, betraying the inexperience of its cast. But their best moments are exquisite, like a slow dance to “Bitter Earth,” filmed nearly in silhouette, erupting in unrequited passion and ending in painful alienation.

It’s strange that Burnett can be such a beloved figure of African-American filmmaking, yet few African-American films since “Killer of Sheep” share his sensibility. Burnett himself hasn’t made many films since then, and for a while, most of them were unreleased or wallowing in obscurity. Fortunately, Milestone has brought a good portion of them back into circulation, and thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s generosity (he paid for the music clearances), “Killer of Sheep” is no longer confined to the underground.

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