The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

The Exiles

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961) actually causes us to rethink the beginning of the modern independent film movement. The Exiles has been compared by critics to John Cassavetes’ debut feature Shadows (1957-59), but it seems even more related to Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s beat classic Pull My Daisy (1959), especially in terms of its style and content. Thanks to sponsorship by Charles Burnett and Native-American writer Sherman Alexie (Smoke Signals), the superb restoration of the film by Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and its recent re-release by the good folks at Milestone Films, this landmark independent film is finally gaining the serious attention it deserves.

The film’s focus on automobiles, bars, gas stations, juke boxes, neon lights, and advertising recalls Robert Frank’s photographic essay, The Americans, first published in 1959. It doesn’t share the same “snapshot aesthetic” of Frank, but rather incongruously harkens back to the pictorialism of Walker Evans, giving it the photographic texture of an even earlier time period. Yet it presents a similar view of alienation and anomie as that of Robert Frank – a shared outsider perspective – by concentrating on a group of American Indians adrift in the urban landscape of the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles during the Eisenhower Era. Jack Kerouac wrote in the introduction of The Americans that Robert Frank “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world.” The same could be said for Kent Mackenzie, but the difference is that The Exiles has languished in obscurity for nearly fifty years.

Mackenzie, who went to film school at USC, made the film over a three-year period. Despite being screened at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, The Exiles was unable to gain theatrical release. This should come as no surprise given the fact that Hollywood was a closed system, which made it virtually impossible for independents to get their work shown in commercial theaters that had union projectionists. MacKenzie made only two features in a brief career before passing away in 1980 at the age of fifty. His other film, Saturday Morning (1970), a cinéma vérité documentary about a teenage encounter group – a film I actually saw at the time – also had difficulty being released, but it eventually did receive very limited theatrical exhibition. Although Mackenzie thought of The Exiles as a “restaged” documentary in the poetic tradition of Robert Flaherty, it really seems more like a “plotless” narrative rooted in realism. In many ways, it’s exactly the type of cinema Jonas Mekas was actively promoting during this period through his lavish praise of the first version of Shadows, Pull My Daisy, and Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief (1960).

There’s an ethnographic quality to The Exiles. Mackenzie, an outsider to the Native-American subculture he obsessively was documenting, reportedly hung out with the film’s main participants over this extended period of time. He involved them creatively in the project, followed them around and recorded their behavior and conversations. Much of the dialogue in The Exiles was not recorded synch sound, but later dubbed in post-production. It also includes voiceover narration and a prologue containing historical photographs of American Indians by Edward Curtis, who attempted to document their traditional life style before it disappeared, providing a context for the displacement we see in the film, which was partially the result of a voluntary government plan, The Urban Indian Relocation Program, that paid Native Americans to relocate to large cities.

The dubbed dialogue, voiceover narration, and deliberate restaging of events for the camera could be criticized as heavy-handed techniques that detract from the authenticity of The Exiles. There are several scenes – the card game, for instance – where the camera seems to be on the wrong person in order to disguise the lack of synchronous dialogue, but these potential flaws are minor when compared to Mackenzie’s otherwise brilliant reliance on pure visual storytelling. Although the credits on the film indicate that it was “written, produced, and directed by Mackenzie,” at least according to John Morrill, one of the film’s three cinematographers: “There was never any script.” The resulting film is a visually stunning “twelve-hour” portrait of down-and-out American Indians, who seem not so different from the beat characters who populate Pull My Daisy.

The beats celebrated the social outcasts or underdogs of society, and no one could be more marginal than the likes of Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds – the three principal characters Mackenzie chooses to follow in The Exiles. Ironically, the men seem to share the same sexist values as their fellow white hipsters, especially in their concern with being free from responsibility and predilection for male camaraderie. The women – much like Milo’s wife in Pull My Daisy – are merely there to administer to the needs of their husbands and children, to suffer physical abuse or dole out cash, while the guys get to carouse with friends and engage in all-night drinking binges. Despite the fact that this sobering portrait is based on a painful stereotype involving alcoholism, Mackenzie’s empathy for his characters manages to trump political correctness in this instance. Sherman Alexie has defended the film as an important document of a neglected aspect of Native-American urban culture. He told Dennis Lim: “It’s a little problematic in that it’s a white guy’s movie about us. But in learning how the film was made, I think people will discover it was truly collaborative. The filmmakers ended up in the position of witness as much as creator.”

The film opens with a sustained drum beat over Edward Curtis photographs. The narrator solemnly intones: “Once the American Indian lived in the ordered freedom of his own culture. Then in the nineteenth century, the white man confined him within the boundaries of the tribal reservation. The old people remembered the past. They witnessed great changes. Many of their children stayed on the reservation. But others of a new generation wandered into the cities.” The initial narration concludes that the film “reflects a life that is not true of all Indians today, but typical of many.” As much a city portrait of downtown Los Angeles as one of an American Indian subculture trying to survive within it, we first meet the pensive and pregnant Yvonne as she shops at a public market. Yvonne is happy that she’ll at least get to have a child she wants even if the rest of her life, especially her marriage to Homer, is already imbued with a sense of resignation and disappointment.

Yvonne’s arrival home with the groceries is met with utter silence by Homer and his friend, who sit reading comic books and listening to rock music, while another guy sleeps on the bed. As she makes dinner for the men, Yvonne conjectures: “If I hadn’t met him, I probably would have been all right maybe at what I wanted. I’ve tried to be a good wife. I did everything that I thought it would satisfy him like cooking for him when he comes home and ironing his clothes. I always have his clothes ready for him in case he wants to go somewhere.” Also a political commentary on the situation of women in general in the 1950s, The Exiles is extremely sympathetic to their plight. Homer drops Yvonne off at the movies, but, as she complains and we later observe for ourselves, he often neglects to pick her up.

Homer provides his own narration by explaining that bars provide excitement and an opportunity to “get in a fight or something.” He discusses being a high school dropout, coinciding with his starting to drink, which accelerates after he gets discharged from the military. As Homer reads a letter from home, there’s a dissolve from a snapshot of his folks to his actual family in Arizona, providing a striking contrast to his current life in Los Angeles as he waits in front of a liquor store for his friend to buy more booze. Homer later claims, “Truthfully, man, I think . . . white people got more troubles than the Indians do, you know. They usually have . . . something on their mind all the time. My people mostly roamed all over the place two, three hundred years ago, before the white man came in. I’d rather be in that time than I would, you know, in this time now.”

Homer and his buddies still roam like their ancestors, but it’s to each other houses to get cash from their wives, gamble at cards, pick up women in bars, and go for joy rides in their cars. In an extended scene at a gas station, Tommy puts down straight life. He says: “I figure a person who lives a regular life lives in a worse world than I do because they want to live the way I do, but they just can’t do it.” Tommy later says, “When I’m in jail, I don’t worry about it because I can do time. I mean, time is just time to me. If I’m doing it outside, so I can do it inside.” When a woman named Mary takes too long in the bathroom, Tommy takes off without her. It says everything about his character. There’s a great scene at the Columbine Bar that epitomizes Homer. As music blares from the juke box, sloshed drunks with craggy faces sit around in stingy brims, and a gay white guy takes to the dance floor, there’s an underlying subtext of violence that finally explodes when Homer inevitably provokes a fistfight. This scene cuts to images of Yvonne looking in store windows as she’s forced to walk home alone from the movies and we hear her discuss her broken dreams: “I used to pray every night before I went to bed and ask for something that I wanted, and I never got it, or it seems like my prayers were never answered. So I just gave up.”

Although Yvonne remains on the straight path, her disillusionment makes her at least vulnerable, even as she reaffirms her resolve not to become like the others. She confesses, “Well, I stopped going to church and all that already, but I haven’t started drinking or hanging around Main Street yet. No, that will never come for me.” Yvonne hopes that Homer will change once she has the baby, but we sense that she knows in her heart this is unlikely. Instead of going home, Yvonne visits her friend Marilyn and sleeps over there to forget her loneliness. After the bars close, Homer heads up to Hill X, a haunt where American Indians go to drum, to sing traditional songs, and drink. Homer reflects on the tribal medicine man who used to chant all night when someone on the reservation got sick. Although some people dismiss the healing power of this as “fake,” Homer insists he’s seen it work. A huge fight breaks out among the men over a woman, who eventually pulls a shawl over her head and watches the night lights of the city from inside a convertible. The night landscape of downtown Los Angeles dissolves into morning, as church bells ring. Cable cars ascend and descend on “Angel’s Flight” next to the tunnel, while Yvonne and her friend are fast asleep. Homer and the other drunken revelers return. Yvonne wakes up and watches the three men and two women out the window as they stumble along and finally disappear down the street on the way to her house.

With the passing of time, Mackenzie’s The Exiles has become a memory piece – an ode to a place that no longer exists. There’s an irony in the fact that the government first encouraged the Native Americans to relocate from reservations to poor urban neighborhoods such as Bunker Hill only to bulldoze them soon afterwards under the guise of urban renewal, adding another layer of exile to those already exiled in their own country. Shot on 35mm, running a mere 72 minutes and completed the same year as the infamous First Statement of the New American Cinema Group in New York, The Exiles now takes its place among the seminal films of the independent film movement, alongside works by Morris Engel, John Cassavetes, Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank, Shirley Clarke, Ron Rice, Lionel Rogosin, and Jonas Mekas. Except for a handful of scholars and cinephiles, who knew until now that one of the most important beat films featured American Indians in Los Angeles?

Seeing The Exiles makes us view other indie films, such as Charles Burnett’s recently restored masterpiece Killer of Sheep (1977) – a work that also documents a minority neighborhood in Los Angeles by utilizing poetic realism, non-professional actors, and visual storytelling – in an entirely new light. The unfortunate neglect of Mackenzie’s The Exiles had consequences. As Burnett explains in an interview in indieWIRE: He [Mackenzie] was ten years ahead of me. I started in the late sixties and he started in the late fifties. He had already worked out his aesthetics, but I have only heard about him recently. It’s too bad he wasn’t known. I think it would have saved all of us a lot of experimenting.”

Special note to local readers of this blog: Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles will screen on Saturday, September 20 at 7:30 PM at the UW Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. Mark your calendars!

Posted 26 August, 2008

Killer of Sheep

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Charles Burnett grew up in South Central Los Angeles, the scene of the 1965 Watts Riots in which thirty-four people were killed and over a thousand people were injured. Burnett was part of a group of African-American filmmakers – Haile Gerima, Julie Dash, and Billy Woodberry – who came out of the UCLA film program during the blaxploitation years of the 1970s. While completing his MFA degree, Burnett received the Louis B. Mayer grant for the most promising thesis film, which became Killer of Sheep (1977). The film remained largely unseen by the general public for several years, and soon after became nearly unavailable (due to copyright issues) despite its strong critical reputation and official landmark status. Originally shot on 16mm black-and-white film, Killer of Sheep has been restored and blown up to 35mm by Milestone Films. Thirty years after the fact, Killer of Sheep finally received a belated theatrical release, grossing over $400,000 domestically at the box office, a very respectable figure for an indie re-issue. The long-awaited DVD version of the film, which includes Burnett’s re-edited second feature My Brother’s Wedding (1983) will be available on November 13. Along with the earlier DVD release of Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche, this is a cause for celebration for anyone interested in the history of American independent film.

In my book on independent screenwriting, Me and You and Memento and Fargo, I discuss variations on the conventional goal-driven protagonist by analyzing what happens when screenwriters employ passive (Safe) or ambivalent (Stranger Than Paradise) protagonists, or when they shift the protagonists midstream (Fargo). The protagonist of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, who works in a slaughterhouse, is closest to Safe’s Carol White when it comes to the issue of agency. As a result of being subjected to the everyday horrors of his environment, Stan suffers from insomnia, impotence, and a growing sense of depression about his dead-end life. Killer of Sheep begins with a flashback from Stan’s childhood, in which he is yelled at for not defending his brother in a fight. His father insists he’s not a child anymore and that he better start understanding what life’s about. Stan also gets slapped across the face by his mother. But Stan (played by Henry Gayle Sanders) turns out to be less a fighter than a weary survivor. He’s so beaten down by life’s daily grind, especially by the dehumanizing effects of his job, that Stan suffers from inertia. Given the social milieu that Burnett portrays, it’s not hard to understand why. Killer of Sheep depicts the physical violence and the sense of despair and hopelessness that pervades life in the ghetto. It provides a glimpse of a world many viewers don’t know anything about, especially because we’re never given an opportunity to see this type of representation in mainstream Hollywood cinema

When Stan complains to Oscar early in the film that he’s working himself into his own hell – he can’t sleep at night and doesn’t have peace of mind – his friend responds, “Why don’t you kill yourself; you’ll be a lot happier.” Stan later presses a warm cup of coffee to his cheek and suggests that it reminds him of making love to a woman., but another friend, Bracy, pokes fun at Stan by remarking, “Myself, I don’t go for women who got malaria.” As Stan struggles against the travails of his day-to-day existence, various threats surface. The unattractive white female owner of the liquor store tries to proposition Stan by offering him a job, but Stan worries about the danger of getting shot in a holdup. Two acquaintances, Scooter and Smoke, attempt to get Stan to accompany them in some type of criminal activity involving murder. When Stan’s wife (Kaycee Moore) overhears them, she confronts the two men:

STAN’S WIFE: Why you always want to hurt somebody?
Scooter looks around to see if she might be talking with someone else.
SCOOTER: Who me? That’s the way nature is. I mean, an animal has his teeth and a man has his fists. That’s the way I was brought up, god damn me.
SMOKE: Right on.
SCOOTER: I mean, when a man’s got scars on his mug from dealing with son of a bitches everyday for his natural life. Ain’t nobody going over this nigger, just dry long so. Now me and Smoke here, we’re taking our issue. You be a man if you can, Stan.
STAN’S WIFE: Wait! You wait just one minute! You talk about being a man and standing up. Don’t you know there’s more to it than with your fists, the scars on your mug, you talking about an animal. Or what? You think you’re still in the bush or some damn where? You’re here. You use your brain; that’s what you use. Both of you nothing ass niggers got a lot of nerve coming over here doing some shit like that.

Scooter’s equation of masculinity with violence takes on bitterly ironic overtones because Stan’s job and depression cause him to lose his sexual drive, driving an emotional wedge between him and his wife. Stan’s wife short-circuits Scooter and Smoke’s attempt to involve Stan in their murder plans, but the scene underscores the constant temptations for someone like Stan, who denies his own poverty by claiming that he gives things to The Salvation Army and by comparing himself to other less fortunate neighbors. Stan tells Bracy: “We may not have a damn thing some time. You want to see somebody that’s poor, now you go around and look at Walter’s. Now they be sitting over an oven with nothing but a coat on, and sitting around rubbing their knees, all day eating nothing but wild greens picked out of a vacant lot. No, that ain’t me and damn sure won’t be.”

This discussion of poverty actually causes Stan to make one proactive attempt to take action, which provides the only semblance of a plot thread in an otherwise impressionistic film consisting of a series of vignettes. Right after this, he tells another friend, Gene, who wants to better himself by getting a car, “Tomorrow after I cash my check, let’s go over to Silbo’s and buy that motor and put it in.” True to his word, Stan cashes his check at the liquor store, and he and Gene show up at Silbo’s to dicker over the price of the motor. While there, Silbo’s nephew lies on the floor with a large white bandage wrapped around his head. When Gene asks what happened, it turns out that two men beat him up, and one kicked him in the face. After Stan asks why, the man answers, “He didn’t have nothing else to do with his hands and feet, nigger.” The nephew later makes crass sexual remarks to a woman named Delores, whose later response – “You about as tasteless as a carrot” – turns out to be one of the best lines in the film. Delores follows this by also kicking the injured man in his head. In the midst of the ensuing ruckus, Silbo agrees to take fifteen dollars for the motor.

Stan and Gene lug the heavy motor out of the house, down the wooden stairs, and eventually place it in back of the pickup truck. Gene injures himself in the process and refuses to secure it any further. He insists it will be fine. After the two men hop inside, the truck lurches backward rather than forward, causing the motor to fall off. Stan and Gene get out, realize that the block of motor is now cracked, and simply leave it there. We watch a little girl’s face pressed up against the rear window of the truck cabin. The camera moves in closer and then pulls away from the motor, which remains where it has fallen in the street.

This sudden flattening of a dramatic arc is mirrored again toward the end of the film when Gene finally gets his car running and they all set off for the racetrack. Their expectations, however, quickly get deflated when the car develops a flat tire and Gene doesn’t have a spare. Bracy raps: “Man, I’m out here singing the blues, got my money on a horse can’t lose, and you’re out here on a flat. I always told you to keep a spare, but you’s a square. That’s why you can’t keep no spare. Now how are we going to get there, huh?” All of them get back into the car. A number of critics – from Armond White and Michael Tolkien to J. Hoberman and Manohla Dargis – have discussed Killer of Sheep in terms of Italian neo-realism, but I don’t find the comparison totally accurate. Films, such as Rossellini’s Open City or DeSica’s Bicycle Thieves – two films often cited as influences – have strong dramatic arcs, whereas Burnett either ignores or undercuts them. Like many independent filmmakers, such as Jim Jarmusch in Stranger than Paradise, Gus Van Sant in Mala Noche or Allison Anders in Gas Food Lodging, Burnett is less interested in creating dramatic tension than in characterization. Burnett’s real focus is on creating a portrait of Stan’s life within this particular social milieu. Nothing changes in the course of the film for Stan, so that his character lacks an arc as well.

Throughout Killer of Sheep, Burnett continually draws a comparison between the fate of the neighborhood children and the slaughter of sheep. After the initial flashback, the film shifts to the present, where Stan’s son, Stan Jr., ducks behind a wooden shield, as rocks ricochet off it. The kids engage in a full-fledged rock fight. One of them appears to get hurt, but after a brief pause, the fighting erupts again. The next shot is from a moving train as the kids hurl rocks at it. Burnett depicts a barren landscape of dust and dirt and almost no vegetation, except for occasional palm trees. The kids play on a train, pretending to push the one of the cars on top of a kid lying on the tracks. In the neighborhood of South Central, even play has become a constant battleground. When Stan Jr. later returns home, he sees two guys stealing a TV set. Stan Jr. tells them that the well-dressed man we see standing there is going to call the police. This suggests that Stan Jr. is already at risk in terms of his identification with the perpetrators of the crime rather than the victim.

When we first meet his father, Stan, he’s busy doing home repair work. In this scene, his daughter, Angela, wears a huge dog mask, which seems to reference Helen Leavitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee’s classic documentary, In the Street. When a friend asks him when he last went to church, Stan answers not since “back home.” The suggests the effects of dislocation that African Americans have experienced as a result of the migration from the rural, agrarian South to urban centers such as Los Angeles – a subject that Burnett would explore in his later film To Sleep With Anger (1990). In a mean gesture, Stan Jr. scrunches his sister’s dog mask before running off. Stan’s two other friends also poke at the little girl’s mask as they walk by. Angela goes outside and hangs on the fence with her hand in her mouth, while a little boy stands nearby. Such a scene is thematically evocative, but doesn’t advance the narrative in any conventional way.

In the overall structure of Killer of Sheep, poetic details, such as Angela wearing the dog mask, are given equal weight in the narrative. The script for the eighty-three minute film is only about seventeen pages long, suggesting that Killer of Sheep relies primarily on visual storytelling and contains very little dialogue. When we think of the Killer of Sheep, we remember its striking images, including those at the factory, where the Judas goats leads the sheep to slaughter. For instance, there’s the scene in which Angela sings off-key to a song by Earth, Wind & Fire, while she plays with a doll. Other scenes include: the kids trying to spin tops in the rubble; the scene where the older girls are dancing and the boy on the bike tries to act like a tough guy and they beat him up and he goes away crying; the dangerous shots from below of the kids jumping across the tops of buildings; the scene toward the end when Stan comes home from the factory and knocks over the two kids who are doing handstands and headstands. There’s also the scene where a man in a soldier uniform wants his clothes back, while a woman upstairs brandishes a gun, and her two young children sit on the couch nearby. This tense situation provides entertainment for the entire neighborhood, including Stan, who witnesses the incident while passing by.

There are scenes between Stan and his wife, which show her sexual frustration. In one, which reminds me of a scene from Stan Brakhage’s early trance film, Reflections of Black, Stan and his wife dance to music of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” For his wife, the dancing has an erotic charge, but Stan, who is shirtless, appears to be merely going through the motions. After the record ends, she attempts to engage in foreplay, but Stan extricates himself and leaves his wife standing alone against the sunlit window. In voiceover, we hear what sounds like a poem: “Memories that just don’t seem mine, like half-eaten cake, rabbit skins stretched on the back yard fences. My grandma, mot dear, mot dear, mot dear, dragging her shadows across the porch. Standing bareheaded under the sun, cleaning red catfish with white rum.” Stan’s wife picks up a pair of white baby shoes and presses them against her bosom, then exits the frame. The scene lasts nearly four minutes. After he returns from work later on, Stan, his wife and daughter are all together in the kitchen. His wife suggests to Stan that they go to bed, but Stan sits silently at the table while she clears the dishes. Angela comes over to her Daddy. She puts her arms around his neck. He looks at her lovingly, while Angela stares at her mother, who sits there despondently. Burnett ends the sequence by framing the shot from behind the wife, so that we watch Angela playfully touch her father’s face and then look over for her mother’s reaction.

The above scene is appropriately followed by the one of the little girl in the dress, who carefully places freshly laundered clothes on the line. Burnett cuts to a shot of a hole in a garage door. A boy crawls out, walks over, and spies on the girl. He returns to the hole, and four more kids of varying sizes climb out. Burnett cuts back to the girl, whose back is turned, and the boys throw dirt all over the clothes hanging on the clothesline. As she turns and stares, the camera holds on her haunting look, which parallel’s the one of both Stan’s wife and daughter in the previous scene. Burnett cuts from the young girl in the dress to shots of the Judas goats at the slaughterhouse.

Burnett usually composes a shot and then doesn’t cut unless it’s absolutely necessary, which results in a film that manages to take its sweet time. Besides its leisurely pace and episodic rather than dramatic structure, Killer of Sheep maintains the overall feel and texture of an independent film in other ways than its initial minuscule $10,000 budget. Its overall narration is much closer to international art cinema than classical Hollywood. Killer of Sheep employs symbolism and ambiguity – two characteristics of art cinema. Plot is also minimized in favor of the film’s densely layered visual imagery. The film’s central metaphor, reinforced by the title, would no doubt seem too obvious were it not made by one of America’s greatest film poets. This remarkable restored version allows viewers to see the film as Charles Burnett originally envisioned it, even if he lacked the necessary resources at the time. Killer of Sheep is quite simply one of the best first features ever made, as well as one of the true classics of American independent cinema.

Posted 3 November, 2007

New York Top Ten Art Shows

1. What is Painting? (MoMA). Curator Anne Umland’s feminist-inflected exhibit provides an alternate reading of the challenges to painting’s authority over the past forty years. It begins with an assassination attempt, Vija Celmin’s “Gun With a Hand” (1964), and takes us step by step into the present, as represented Wade Guyton’s Warhol-inspired “Untitled” (2006) and the hard-edge geometric abstraction of Sarah Morris. Along the way, the show deliberately avoids the usual suspects. It’s amazing to see how rediscovered artists such as Lee Lozano and Lee Bontecou seamlessly fit into the context of the show, or how various others, like Jackie Winsor or Dorothea Rockburne, expand our notions of painting. There’s one Warhol. The terrific eight-panel portrait of Lita Hornick paid for Lonesome Cowboys (1968).

2. Raymond Pettibon (David Zwirner). I thought Pettibon’s graffiti installation was one of the big flops at the Venice Biennale this summer, but his new show at David Zwirner, entitled “Here’s Your Irony Back (The Big Picture),” is a hard-hitting political attack on the US involvement in Iraq. Pettibon’s comic book-inspired drawings and collages contain incredibly rich graphics – the show’s a virtual textual and visual overload – that combine political agitprop with caustic wit, while refusing to pull any punches. It may be the best single one-person show of Pettibon I’ve seen. The last time I looked, all 97 pieces were available for viewing online.

3. Neo Rauch (The Met). The twelve newly commissioned paintings by Neo Rauch at the Met entitled “para” succeed despite the cramped quarters of the show. And the two additional works in the larger room next door made a total of fourteen. Neo Rauch’s best work employs elements of narrative, while defying easy reading. “Waiting for the Barbarians” creates a frightening sense of expectation, in which the flatness of the turquoise sky and the red and green texture of the house roof play off other elements that suggest a small town just after a carnival. A strange pall hangs over its inhabitants. Two women reach for a rifle, while a funeral pyre contains a human figure wearing an animal head. In this work and the others, Neo Rauch manages to turn the trappings of socialist realism into something more akin to magic realism.

4. Rembrandt (The Met). How can Rembrandt possibly be rated behind these other shows? Two reasons. The organization by patron reminds me of the nutty treasure hunt concocted by the two curators at Documenta 12 this summer. At this point in history, when Artforum is the size of a telephone book as a result of gallery ads (which dwarf the art criticism inside), we don’t need to be reminded of the connection between art and money. It’s great on one level that The Met carted out their entire collection of Dutch paintings for the show. While it serves to place Rembrandt within a historic context, it unfortunately also lessens the impact. The incandescent Rembrandt portraits are, well, Rembrandts, but those five Vermeers secretly stole my eyes.

5. Sol LeWitt (Paula Cooper). Even in passing on, Sol Lewitt hasn’t lost a step. He’s only getting better, which turns out to be – who would have guessed? – one of the hidden benefits of his conceptual strategy. This monumental sculpture entitled “A Cube with Scribble Bands in Four Directions, One Direction on Each Face” (2007) was one of the unexpected surprises, proving that, as much as you might think you know the guy’s work, Sol LeWitt is never quite as predictable as he ought to be. This piece of intense graphite scribbles changes depending on your perspective and just might be the most auratic Lewitt in recent memory.

6. Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (IFC Center). How I managed to get the last two tickets for the 8:40 PM Saturday screening a half-hour before makes me wish I had also bought a ticket for Powerball that day. The new version of My Brother’s Wedding (1983) has been re-edited from 115 down to 81 minutes. No, it’s not as strong a film as either Burnett’s masterpiece Killer of Sheep or his later To Sleep With Anger, but it’s nevertheless an important transitional work which provides important thematic connections. The film captures a sense of what it’s like to live in South Central, Los Angeles as much as Killer of Sheep. When someone knocks at the door or a couple shady-looking dudes turn up at the local dry cleaners run by Pierce’s family, the sense of danger is palpable. This is balanced by comedic moments I hadn’t associated with Burnett previously. In the question and answer session afterwards, Burnett turned out to be as sensitive in person as his films. How many times have you seen a guy change a baby’s diapers in a movie? It was about as shocking as when Paul America turns around and takes a pee in Warhol’s My Hustler. My Brother’s Wedding, along with Killer of Sheep, is scheduled for DVD release on November 13. Mark your calendars.

7. Jules de Balincourt (Zach Feuer Gallery). I’ve been a fan of Jules de Balincourt’s work from his very first New York show in 2003 at LFL. He mixes the Mission-school aesthetic of Chris Johanson with the primitiveness of Tal R to create a style very much his own. The range of his talent is on view in his latest solo show “Unknowing Man’s Nature,” which juxtaposes geometric abstraction, outsider-like representation, digital-inspired imagery, maps, and large squiggly expressionist patterns with a palette that runs the gamut – from pink and baby blue to bright acidic orange and green. A large painting like “Think Globally, Act Locally” proves how good de Balincourt really is as a painter. Some of my other favorites in the show are the wide shots of moody landscapes, such as “I’m Just a Fire in the Night,” the small cluttered painting of a room filled with safari trophies called “Global Hunter, or the small “Untitled” painting of people awkwardly sitting around a fire that suggests we’re in Kay Donachie territory.

8. Mark Bradford (Whitney Museum). While critics continue to rave about Rudolf Stingel, I’ve seen his work at Venice four years ago, a whole solo show at the MCA in Chicago, and now this entire floor of the Whitney. Mirror floors, Styrofoam, carpet, decorative wallpaper, photorealism, interactive silver walls in which viewers draw their own graffiti – okay I get how he questions what constitutes painting, but the show at MoMA said the same thing only much better. And if the bad art in the “Summer of Love” exhibit made me temporarily regret ever having been a hippie, it was redeemed only by the small section of psychedelic posters of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and the Warhol-related photos. Mark Bradford’s three large canvasses on the first floor turned out to be the real highlight. The surfaces of the silver canvasses were composed of elements of collage – fragments of decayed posters – other than paint, resulting in imagery that suggests urban topography.

9. Collier Schorr (303 Gallery). The fact that this gutsy show consists of drawings and some photographs rather than her usual obsessively staged photographs of young men gives it an unpredictable element. This exhibit turns out to be a variation of the same theme, but filtered this time through the prism of her photographer father, who documented a young man with a fixation on a 1967 Corvette about to go off to war. Though Schorr claims not to be able to draw, these are pretty good renditions of a young man who never made it back. What is most interesting about her drawings are the representative elements she chooses not to depict – her use of negative space – that makes them an elusive attempt to recapture childhood memory.

10. Abel Auer and Dorota Jurczak (PS 1). I was grateful for an opportunity to see the work of these two Hamburg-based artists in a show organized by Alanna Heiss. Auer’s landscapes have an element of kitsch or bad Teutonic folk paintings done with an over-the-top color palette that bears affinity to other Modern Gothic work. His drawings in this particular show are much stronger and weirder than the paintings. They are nicely complemented by Polish-born Dorota Jurczak’s careful but macabre etchings and paintings rooted in Eastern European symbolism. All of her pieces remain remarkably self-contained in contrast to the more effusive style of Auer. 

Other noteworthy shows include: Ryan Trecartin (Elizabeth Dee), Eva Struble (Lombard-Fried), Matt Keegan (D’Amelio Terras), Henning Bohl (Casey Kaplan), Ingrid Calame (James Cohan), Jonathan Pylypchuck (Friedrich Petzel), Huma Bhabha (ATM Gallery), Jim Drain (Greene Naftali), Laura Letinsky (Yancey Richardson) and Ugo Rondinone (Matthew Marks).

Posted 24 September, 2007

Charles Burnett: To Sleep With Anger

In thinking about a topic for “The Ambitious Failure Blog-a-thon” on William Speruzzi’s [This Savage Art], I felt somewhat at a loss because I prefer to write about films I really like rather than films that I consider aesthetic failures. As a result, I’ve decided to interpret “ambitious failure” to include a really terrific film that has gone unrecognized for whatever reason. Charles Burnett is an example of a truly major American indie filmmaker, who has never had the career he deserved. His first feature, Killer of Sheep, was restored and re-released recently by Milestone Films – thirty years after it was made. Prior to the theatrical re-release, the film was only available in poor-quality 16mm prints, in which much of the dialogue was extremely challenging to decipher. I saw Burnett’s second film, My Brother’s Wedding, at Facets Multi-Media in Chicago when it was first released, but I’ve never had an opportunity to view it again because the film had no real distribution.

With To Sleep With Anger, starring Danny Glover, Charles Burnett was finally able to make a feature on a much larger budget, but the film failed at the box office, which I think was largely responsible for derailing Burnett’s career. The film came out on VHS, but it subsequently never made it to DVD in the U.S. The result is that Burnett’s first three feature films are not currently available on DVD in this country. Killer of Sheep obviously will be released on DVD later this year, but what about To Sleep With Anger? The fact that Burnett’s most commercial film has never even been available on DVD means that most people haven’t been able to see it. It is only in a commercial sense that I consider Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger to be an “ambitious failure.” Here is my blog about the film:

Spike Lee’s unexpected commercial triumph with She’s Gotta Have It (1986) helped pave the way for subsequent African-American filmmakers, such as Robert Townsend, John Singleton, Matty Rich, Julie Dash, and Darnell Martin. Spike Lee’s militancy had an important political impact, even as he soon left low-budget independent film for the privileges of larger studio productions. The success of She’s Gotta Have It showed that audiences were hungry for representations of African Americans other than Hollywood’s recycled racial stereotypes. Yet it was actually the overlooked work of Charles Burnett that anticipated the interest by future American independent writers and directors in exploring more racially and ethnically diverse subject matter.

Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977), an elliptical portrait of a struggling slaughterhouse worker and his family in the South Central neighborhood in Los Angeles, represented a remarkable debut feature when it was released. Subsequently designated by the National Film Registry and given the equivalent of landmark status, Killer of Sheep proved to be very much ahead of its time. It belongs to that period before independent films managed to break into the mainstream. Burnett explains: “It was the 70s and it stayed in the can a very long time. There wasn’t any Sundance, no place to show a film and walk away with a three-picture deal.” In Killer of Sheep, Burnett creates a kind of poetic realism through an episodic series of vignettes about a slaughterhouse worker named Stan, whose job causes him to suffer from both insomnia and a growing sense of frustration with his dead-end life.

Killer of Sheep begins with a flashback from Stan’s childhood, then shifts to kids engaged in a spirited rock fight, which causes injury to one of the combatants. An analogy is made throughout Killer of Sheep between the harsh reality of children at play – as they leap from the top of buildings or deliberately throw dirt on freshly laundered clothes – and the sheep being slaughtered at the factory where Stan works. As Stan struggles against the travails of his day-to-day existence, various threats manifest themselves. The unattractive white female owner of the liquor store tries to proposition Stan by offering him a job, but Stan worries about the potential danger of getting shot in a hold-up. Two guys in leather jackets, Scooter and Smoke, attempt to get him to accompany them in some type of criminal activity involving a gun. When Stan’s wife overhears them, however, she confronts the two men by asking, “Why you always want to hurt somebody? Scooter replies: “That’s the way nature is. I mean, an animal has his teeth and a man has his fists. That’s the way I was brought up, god damn me.” Scooter’s equation of manhood with crime takes on bitterly ironic overtones because Stan’s job and personal troubles cause him to become alienated sexually from his wife. Stan never does go with Smoke and Scooter, but the scene underscores the constant temptations for someone like Stan, who, as Smoke points out, “don’t even have a decent pair of pants.”

Burnett made another feature, My Brother’s Wedding (1983) – financed by European TV – before he received the opportunity to work with a larger budget. To Sleep With Anger (1990), a family drama also set in South Central, wound up winning one of the three featured prizes at the 1990 Sundance Film Festival, part of a sweep for African-American films that year. In many ways, To Sleep With Anger represented Burnett’s first real chance to break into the mainstream. After two low budget features, this film had a sizable budget of over $1 million and the box-office appeal of Danny Glover, whose attachment to the project was the element that made financing even possible. The success of winning a prize at Sundance should have given the film additional momentum. Burnett, however, felt compromised by the fact that the film’s distributor demanded additional cuts. To Sleep With Anger’s distribution campaign also proved highly controversial when Samuel Goldwyn decided to market it as an art film rather than as a film that had significant appeal to black audiences. Despite generally positive reviews, the film’s failure at the box office turned out to have a negative impact on Burnett’s subsequent career. Although To Sleep With Anger was released on VHS, the film has never even been available on DVD in the U.S. All of this is rather unfortunate because To Sleep With Anger remains one of the most complex cinematic representations of middle-class African Americans ever produced within this country.

Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger explores the fragile nature of the African-American family, but it does so within an even wider historical and cultural context. The film begins with a wonderfully evocative dream-image of an older man, Gideon, dressed in his finest formal attire, sitting beside a table that contains a bowl of fruit. The camera pans to a portrait of a well-dressed woman, tilts down to the bowl of fruit, and then pans back to Gideon. Flames flare up in various places of this composition, conjuring up metaphorical notions of hell and the devil. The basic story of To Sleep With Anger concerns Harry, an old friend from back home, who turns up after thirty years and exacerbates the volatile, beneath-the-surface tensions that exist between and among various family members – Gideon and his wife Suzie, and their two grown children, Junior and Babe Brother – especially once Gideon becomes sick about forty minutes into the film. The film explores the effect of the past on migrating black families, especially those who move from rural, agrarian backgrounds, such as the American South, to more urban settings. To Sleep With Anger shows how folkloric myth and superstition continue to operate in the lives of African Americans despite changes in locale and social class. It underscores the extremely tenuous nature of the family unit, even one that has been able to rise to lower middle class status. Somewhat surprisingly, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting originally passed on the project primarily because of what Burnett termed “Its Blackness”– the folkloric elements he had incorporated into the script.

To Sleep With Anger is a family drama. Like Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into the Night, Burnett’s script creates conflicts between and among each of the family members, who, when they speak and act, do so within the context of an entire history of perceived slights and injustices. Even Suzie, who is the film’s most sympathetic character, manages to have real depth and complexity. While Gideon shows a clear preference for his older Son, Junior, Suzie defends her troubled younger son to Gideon, and tries hard to treat both of her children equally. Her tolerance also extends to Harry, far beyond the point where he deserves such consideration. It is actually Suzie who accedes to Harry’s desire to have the old-fashioned fish fry, an event which brings elements of their rural past back into their present lives with nearly disastrous consequences. Yet when Harry refuses to give a clear signal that he’s a good person as well as a friend, Suzie does not hesitate in asking him to leave her house. Nor does Suzie hide her irritation at Okra’s marriage proposal to her once Gideon becomes ill. Her response is to get up and leave, remarking that she has to feed her dog. It’s a devastating, indirect putdown. Nevertheless, Suzie is extremely polite to Linda when she shows up empty-handed at the party, even though her daughter-in-law’s self-centered careerism is a source of irritation. Linda, on the other hand, barely acknowledges Suzie.

Linda’s complaints about Babe Brother’s family have a definite class bias. This is especially apparent in the scene where Babe Brother tries to coax her to come inside rather than wait in the car. Both Babe Brother and Linda suffer from their professional ambition. He works as a loan officer and she as a real estate agent, which is why Sunny’s child-care has become a major source of irritation to Gideon and the other family members. Babe Brother and Linda’s desire for upward mobility comes with a price, which is that Sunny winds up spending too much time at his grandparents. Linda is the thoroughly modern black urban professional woman. When Harry asks her whether she had her baby at home, Linda tells him proudly that Sunny was born in a private hospital. She also takes a sideswipe at Pat and Junior, whose baby was delivered by a midwife. Linda comments, “Junior’s wife, she kept her afterbirth in the refrigerator. That’s why I don’t eat over there now.” Linda instinctively knows the right buttons to push in her husband during an argument. When she becomes miffed at Babe Brother for giving Sunny a sip of his coffee, she tells him, “Just because you were spoiled, don’t try to spoil Sunny.” This elicits a torrent of pent-up rage from Babe Brother.

Despite his professional ambitions and his marriage to the upwardly mobile Linda, Babe Brother nevertheless has been stigmatized as the bad son by his father and the lazy younger brother by Junior. Babe Brother resents always being compared unfavorably to Junior. He feels cheated out of his father’s love and respect and, as a consequence, his behavior becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Babe Brother precipitates the knife fight by refusing to help move his father’s bed from under the leaky roof. He tells Junior, “You always got the best of it around here and whenever Dad talks about ‘my son,’ it’s always you, so you fix the roof.” He also bristles over being called “boy” and being referred to continually as “Babe Brother” rather than by his real name, Samuel. Junior, on the other hand, labors under the burden of being the responsible older brother. Babe Brother also thinks his father picks on him. At the party, the two of them get into a heated argument. When Linda explains to Babe Brother that Gideon’s criticisms stem from love and concern, Babe Brother snaps back: “I don’t need that kind of love. And I don’t need to be reminded all the time that Big Mama was born in slavery. If you really care about me, just show me how to make money.”

There are many direct allusions to slavery in the film, including Harry’s reference to the Natchez Trace, a major slave route. While Babe Brother resents being reminded that Big Mamma was born in slavery, Gideon accuses Babe Brother of treating them like slaves by leaving Sunny with them for long periods of time. He raises the economic aspect of slavery by admonishing Babe Brother, “Don’t think you can get ahead by riding our backs.” When Junior confronts Babe Brother about his failure to help Suzie move Gideon’s bed, he alludes to Harry as being Babe Brother’s “master.” He tells him, “I betcha if your master told you to fix the hole in the roof, you would have rebuilt the whole damn house.” At the big party, Marsh, who has arrived with Hattie, confronts Harry about the deaths of several young men back home. Hocker’s death, it turns out, was made to look like a lynching by white folks. Marsh also describes another racial incident involving someone named Chick who, in fact, was tortured and killed by a white mob. Marsh describes the ensuing violence to Harry in graphic detail: “He killed a white man that owed him some money, and when they caught him, they tied him behind a car and they dragged him out of the hills back to town.”

There are also a number of references to Southern gentility, the flip side of Southern racism. Suzie describes Harry as having “good manners,” which remind her of her Southern roots. Harry remarks, “Well, you had to know how to act right where we come from. Now you had to know how to say ‘yes sir’ – ‘no sir.’ You had to know your place.” There can be no missing the irony in their nostalgia for the values of the Old South, where white gentility provided a mask for the evils of slavery and racism. As Nathan Grant comments, “What is portentously evil in this exchange is the idea that ‘knowing one’s place’ certainly carries with it racism’s demand that black folk observe proper behavior. This is an evil in itself that should of course make Harry and his manners suspect.” Harry’s own affability indeed often hides his true evil intentions. Hattie, in fact, comments about this aspect of Harry as she makes the case for Suzie to get rid of him. Harry explains his own behavior in terms of the effects of racism on the psyches of African-American males, just prior to Suzie asking him to leave her house. After Harry suggests that he fully expects to spend eternity in hell, he tells her, “If you were made to feel half a man, what do you think the other half is?” Such pointed references to slavery and racism in the film combine to emphasize how the break-up of the family unit as a result of slavery has impacted on the lives of African Americans to this very day.

Harry’s unexpected visit causes various tensions within the family to become inflamed. Harry has been described as being based on the trickster figure from African folklore. Burnett comments on this aspect of Harry’s character: “So I wanted to do a character who was based on a folkloric character – the trickster – who embodied this type of person who is seen as evil, but isn’t evil. The trickster figure always has so many dimensions, and is viewed in so many different ways. So I wanted the character of Harry to have that kind of ambiguity.”Although there is a certain degree of ambiguity in Harry’s character, it seems pretty clear that, at least allegorically, he represents the devil. Harry deliberately gets up too late to go to church and then proceeds to plays cards with Babe Brother instead. He ridicules Junior and Pat’s altruism and volunteer work as well as Hattie’s religious transformation. He even makes Gideon the soup that seems to worsen his condition. Although it is left ambiguous within the actual text – Harry seems to be looking to add something to the soup before giving it to Gideon – there is at least the possibility that Harry has poisoned Gideon. Harry’s total ascension to being a surrogate father figure within the family coincides with Gideon’s illness – a point that Hattie underscores to Suzie in making the case for getting rid of him – and it is only after Harry dies that Gideon’s health returns. Burnett comments in an interview, “You never really see Harry do anything, it’s all just rumor.” Although there is some truth to this assertion, Harry does make a deliberate attempt to break up Babe Brother’s family, and he also gives him the knife which will be play a part in the fight with Junior, and in causing Suzie’s subsequent injury. Afterwards, Babe Brother describes the experience as the equivalent of being in hell, and Suzie even cuts Gideon’s story short by commenting that she doesn’t want to hear any stories about “colored people being in hell” and raises her injured hand as proof.

The women in the film all develop a strong aversion to Harry eventually, because Harry represents a threat to the stability of their families. When Babe Brother vacillates about returning back home, Harry’s sexism rises to the surface: “I know your mind is on your wife, but you should never treat a woman as an equal. You want to get your wife back, get another woman.”  Earlier, when he is confronted by Suzie who demands to know the kind of person he is and whether he’s a friend, Harry avoids giving her a direct answer. Instead, he resorts to metaphor: “Like that boy next door playing his horn. If he was a friend, he would stop irritating people, but if he stops practicing, he wouldn’t be perfect at what he does someday.” Harry doesn’t deny he’s evil. In fact, he merely suggests that he’s trying to become more perfect at it. But moments later, we see his better side. Harry remarks, “Suzie, I’m not a bad fellow; I just like to have a good time.” He also gives her a picture of his son, and adds, “I’ll say my so-longs to Gideon before I leave. Suzie, I truly wish that he will get well.”

Harry also clashes with Hattie, the former sinner who is now saved. When they first meet, there is an initial awkward silence between them, but Harry quickly takes the offensive by alluding to the fact that Hattie used to work in her mother’s house of prostitution. Harry initially acts like a polite gentleman at the start of the scene by pulling out the chair and seating Hattie, but Harry’s subsequent actions have a lascivious element as he comes behind Hattie and leans in closer to her, even placing his hands on her suggestively, while she remains embarrassed and unresponsive to his advances. Harry’s disparaging remarks about her deceased mother clearly wound Hattie. It causes her to fight back verbally against Harry, leading to an escalating exchange of insults. Hattie finally responds, “An empty wagon makes a lot of noise. You tappy head, you ain’t worth the salt you put in greens.” Harry likewise has nothing but scorn for Hattie. To him, she is still a prostitute, but in different clothes. Despite her having found religion, Hattie is not beyond suggesting later to Suzie that poisoning Harry would be a good means of disposing of him. Some of the ambiguity in Harry’s character which appears in the original published script in Scenario has been cut out of the final film version, as has other exposition relating to the wider community of people portrayed in the film. Burnett claims these cuts were determined by commercial considerations having to do with the film’s distribution, but he also comments about the differences between the written script and the actual film: “I mean, a script requires a lot of exposition to make it work; a film doesn’t. A lot of that ends up getting in the way of the rhythm of the film that somehow establishes itself after you put it all together in the editing room.” Yet, even with these cuts, To Sleep with Anger still unfolds at a fairly slow pace by commercial standards, as evidenced by its long first act and the early climax, involving Harry’s accidental death, in the final act. The resolution lasts for eleven minutes. The tone of the film also shifts as Gideon recovers from his illness and the family reestablishes its sense of equilibrium while waiting for the county to cart Harry’s body away.

Roger Ebert, one of the most sympathetic critics of non-mainstream films, complains about the pacing and the lack of dramatic climax of To Sleep With Anger. He writes: What should be a coiled film, exploding at the end, is one where the final act releases our impatience rather than our tension. There are good things in this movie, but too much time in between them.” Harry’s death might normally be considered a kind of deus ex machina – an artificial means of resolving the story – but Burnett has made both luck and superstition so much a part of the narrative that this does not seem a contrivance. Harry could have just as easily left with his pals to go back home, and that would have been that, because he’s already become an ostracized figure within the family by the time he slips on Sunny’s marbles and dies. His death, in fact, has been prefigured by Sunny touching Harry’s shoes with a broom – a sign of bad luck – when Harry first arrives.

Besides its leisurely pace and flattening of the dramatic arc in the final act, To Sleep With Anger maintains the overall feel and texture of an independent film in other ways, especially by creating a densely layered narrative that exists on several different levels. Burnett explains: “One of the things that got me into this business was trying to make realistic movies but going beyond and behind. What appears isn’t what’s there in a certain sense. Trying to reach beyond and behind, that’s where you go off-center somehow.” Burnett’s dialogue in To Sleep With Anger represents one example of Burnett going “beyond and behind” realism. Steeped as the characters are in past resentments, the conversations are embedded with subtext. Nothing any character says can be taken at face value. Harry, in particular, speaks largely in riddles. Every response becomes an opportunity for him to play “devil’s advocate” by attempting to turn good deeds, religious transformation, or someone’s deep-seated anger – as in the case of Babe Brother – to his own debased ends. Burnett’s dialogue is deeply resonant and highly indirect; it is full of aphorisms, quotations, metaphors, and allusions to African-American culture and history. Conversations between characters, such as those between Harry and Hattie, often take the form of a verbal sparring match. All of Burnett’s characters, including even Suzie, prove to be masters of the putdown.

Like Killer of Sheep, To Sleep With Anger employs a kind of symbolism and ambiguity more generally associated with art cinema. Burnett also infuses his domestic drama with a visually poetic quality usually not found in this genre. The powerful opening image of Gideon’s heaven-and-hell dream sets the tone for what follows and serves a striking example of Burnett’s visual sense. Burnett also provides poetic, slice-of-life transitions between scenes, such as shots of the neighbor boy’s pigeons flying through the neighborhood and the off-key sounds of the young trumpet-player. The fact that other small details were excised from the script, either during filming or in the editing room is not a novel development. For a fundamental tension between independent artistic visions and the perceived norms of the commercial marketplace has existed from the very beginning of the American independent feature film movement – all the way back to John Cassavetes’ Shadows. It is that same demand, as Burnett puts it, “to get it tight, streamlined: establish that rhythm that would keep the audience interested: you know, suck ’em in and spit ’em out at the end.” To its credit, To Sleep with Anger ultimately resists that tendency, which is probably one reason why, as critic Armond White points out, Charles Burnett still remains “the least well-known great American filmmaker.”

Posted 23 June, 2007