On the occasion of African American filmmaker Charles Burnett making his first visit to the Wex this Friday as part of a two-day program of his work, we asked emerging Columbus filmmaker Cameron Granger to share his impressions of Burnett's 1977 masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, below. An award-winning artist whose work has been seen throughout Ohio (including in the Wex's Ohio Shorts program) and who'll be presenting his latest work at Chicago's Filmfront in November, Cameron saw Killer of Sheep for the first time this summer, during his time as a Skowhegan resident artist.
This summer feels like a fever dream. I guess in not too different of the way that all summers do, now that I think about it. It’s kind of like a gesture drawing; the form is there—emotions, instances—but the details are hazy.
I was a little broken, and a lot lonely the summer I first saw Killer Of Sheep--again, something that summers are no stranger to, I know. I was in what I think was the third week of a summer art residency called Skowhegan, deep in the woods of Northern Maine, far, far away from everything and everyone I loved back in Ohio.
I came to the woods with a heap of baggage from back home—all kinds, work, romantic, familial, you name it—and I think that, coupled with the culture shock of being around so many talented, incredibly intelligent artists and the isolation, backed me into a corner.
The existence of Killer of Sheep, like summers themselves, is best examined by starting from the end.
In addition to winning a slew of awards, Burnett’s film has been dubbed one of the National Society of Film Critics' 100 Essential Films, and has a copy stored at the National Film Registry. Released in 1978, the 80-minute film, directed, produced, shot, and edited by Burnett himself, served as both his MFA thesis at UCLA and his debut film.
Set in Burnett’s hometown of Watts, LA, Killer of Sheep follows slaughterhouse worker Stan and his unnamed wife and kids over a series of vignettes. Though the story is of course, in many ways, and perhaps at its core a mosaic of black working class life, to boil it down to that alone would be a miscalculation. Instead, when I think of Killer of Sheep’s plot, I think of monotony and comfort, and how the two are rarely found or achieved without the other.
I think there’s something comforting about monotony.
I made a lot of phone calls to my mom during those first few weeks. I think it was some effort to reclaim my own sense of monotony. I clung to every single word she said even hours after we hung up the phone. I had just gotten off a call with her when two other artists invited me to watch the film with them. I remember actually jumping at the chance.
Killer of Sheep is often likened to Italian Neorealism, the post-WWII film movement focused on the daily lives of poor, working class people. Like Burnett’s film, the stories are small in scale. Not a lot really happens, the status quo rarely shifts, and the poor remain poor.
Throughout the film, Stan gets wrapped up in an assassination plot, entertains new job offers, and hauls a car engine across town, all in an attempt to provide some sort of comfort for his family. Not a single one of Stan’s "ventures" pans out. His wife breaks up the assassination plot before it can begin, he denies the flirtatious white woman’s job offer at the liquor store, and the engine breaks before he can even use it. In an effort to find comfort for himself and his family, Stan instead finds himself bound ceaselessly to his daily, mundane life.
“Memories that don’t seem mine, like half eaten cake and rabbit skins stretched on the backyard fences. My grandmother, mother dear, most dear, dragging her shadow across the porch. Standing bare headed under the sun, cleaning red catfish with white rum.”
Near the end of the film, while lamenting on the current state of her marriage, this is heard from Stan’s wife as she recalls her life back in the South. The South she remembers is a surreal, mythical South. A South that is both familiar and romantic, and yes, ever fading and gestural, just like those hazy, dreamy summers of old that are gone too soon.
We watched several movies that night after Killer of Sheep. None really sat with me the way that Burnett’s debut did. In a moment in my life when I was completely devoid of comfort or the mundane, I think it was watching a film where people that looked like me were striving to attain their own comfort that allowed me to stop worrying about finding mine.