The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Quiet City

Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland represent a vivid study in contrasts. Frownland, with its cramped apartments and cast of social misfits, presents a hellish vision of urban life in Brooklyn. Aaron Katz’s Quiet City, on the other hand, somehow manages to turn Brooklyn into a semi-pastoral landscape by interspersing shots of nature – from changing autumn leaves and tree branches against blue sky and puffy clouds to spectacular sunsets. Even the subway ride and traffic lights of the city at night are rendered as colorful abstractions. While the film will remind viewers of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, along with work by Andrew Bujalski, Joe Swanberg, and David Gordon Green, Katz successfully navigates the terrain of cinematic influences and references by creating a film that embodies a sensibility very much his own.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Before Sunrise, largely because Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy still seem too much like professional actors despite Linklater’s use of naturalism. As characters, they try so hard to impress each other that it invariably results in missed connections. Jamie (Erin Fisher) and Charlie (Cris Lankenau), the two young protagonists of Quiet City, on the contrary, don’t really try at all. They’re not obsessed with getting into each other’s pants for one thing, but seem more interested in just hanging out and getting to know one another.

The story is remarkably simple. Jamie arrives in Brooklyn to meet a friend, Samantha, who, due to cell-phone problems, ends up leaving her stranded. Jamie runs into Charlie in the subway station, asks for directions to a diner, and the two end up spending the next twenty-four hours together. Although scripted, there’s not really much of a plot in the conventional sense. Instead we experience a series of episodic narrative incidents. The two break into Samantha’s apartment, have a foot race in the park, and visit a friend, Adam (Joe Swanberg), to retrieve Charlie’s hat, but actually forget to take it. They later go to an art opening and a party afterwards.

Neither Jamie nor Charlie appear to have much drive or ambition. We learn at the art opening that Jamie works at an Applebee’s restaurant in Atlanta, while Charlie has quit his job and wishes he could find a way to get paid for doing absolutely nothing. Jamie is extremely attractive. She has a certain directness in manner, but often disguises it by raising the inflection of her voice at the end of a sentence, so that what begins as an assertion somehow gets converted into a question. Jamie also has the nervous habit of playing with her hair. Charlie, on the other hand, speaks much less, and manages to be vague about just about everything – the taste of wine or if he’s fast runner – but he exudes a certain puppy-like charm. At the diner, it comes out that Charlie’s ex-girlfriend used to like to go there. In response to Jamie’s questions, Charlie indicates that she’s now in Alaska, but later mentions that she previously lived in Florida. Charlie offers to let Jamie stay at his place, adding that “my couch is open.” Jamie’s first response is to laugh at the blatant implications, but she accepts his gracious offer. Nevertheless, Jamie is pretty flirtatious, even if Charlie appears not to notice.

When they get to his apartment, Jamie offers to give the shaggy-haired Charlie a haircut. Afterwards, he complains about feeling itchy and takes a shower. We fully expect Jamie to join him, but after he finishes, Charlie finds her fast asleep on his bed. He might lie down next to her, but instead ends up sleeping on the couch. The reasons for Jamie’s reticence become evident the next morning when she gets a phone call, presumably from her boyfriend in Atlanta. Jamie tells him what’s happened and openly admits that she’s just slept at some guy’s apartment. He hangs up. Jamie calls right back, and makes it clear that “I’m not doing anything wrong,” though it’s apparent from the tone of their brief conversation that they have issues.

While sitting together on the floor of Samantha’s apartment, Charlie confesses to being cowardly. He tells her that he has a tendency to withdraw from relationships rather than break them off – he doesn’t want to take responsibility for the other person’s feelings. Jamie admits that she’s mostly dated people liked him, but that in her latest relationship she’s turning into him. As they continue to discuss relationships, Charlie says something about hoping to grow up, so as not to freak out and feel trapped, “and just kind of actually go with it.” The camera pans from a side view of Jamie to a reaction shot of Charlie, as she responds, “Well this is my first time feeling like that.” He nods his head in agreement. The camera cuts back to Jamie, who stares directly at him.

After Jamie beats Charlie in a foot race at the park, Jamie invites Charlie to her high school friend’s art opening later that evening. While in the neighborhood, Charlie suggests stopping at Adam’s place to get his hat. There’s a very funny scene where Adam at first refuses to buzz them in. Once upstairs, Adam complains that he hasn’t heard from Charlie in awhile. It turns out that Adam has gotten engaged after being together with a woman for seven years. The fact that Adam’s getting married suggests a level of adult maturity that Jamie and Charlie speculated about earlier. The two return to Charlie’s apartment, where Jamie takes a shower – a second opportunity for something to happen. After she finishes, Charlie is now the one who’s fallen asleep.

At the art opening, Charlie runs into a hyperactive friend named Kyle (Tucker Stone), who also suggests that he hasn’t seen Charlie for several weeks, reinforcing what we’ve learned about him from Adam. Kyle, in fact, manages to ridicule both Jamie and Charlie. He playfully embarrasses Charlie in front of Jamie by asking whether Charlie’s still gearing up to move down to Florida to be with a girlfriend. Kyle tells Jamie, “He’s hung up on some girl back in Florida.” “No I’m not,” Charlie insists, looking at Jamie, but Kyle counters, “You talk about her all the time.” It’s clear that Charlie wants him to shut up – has he been outed, or is Kyle simply mistaken? Whatever the case, Charlie seems to react with genuine embarrassment.

Jamie’s artist friend, Robin (Sarah Hellman), invites the three of them back to her place for an after-party, where we watch the four of them dance to rock music, but we hear non-diegetic piano music instead, which creates a strange effect. As Jamie and Robin lie together in a loft bed, Robin talks candidly about her love life, complaining that she’s been having trouble relating to men sexually. She first seems to indicate that she would prefer passionate sex with someone she didn’t know all that well, but then later tells a story about asking a guy if she could just lie on top on him. Her story suggests the theme of Quiet City, namely, that people have a desperate need, not for casual sex, but for real intimacy. Following the party, we see Jamie and Charlie riding alone in an empty subway car. The camera frames them from behind, as Jamie’s head leans into the fold of Charlie’s neck and the two fall asleep. The film ends with a shot of an airplane taking off against an orange-red sky. Although it’s left ambiguous, Quiet City suggests that these shared moments of intimacy are, in all likelihood, a temporary solace.

Quiet City primarily works because of the palpable chemistry between the two main performers. At one point, Jamie and Charlie improvise a duet on a small electronic keyboard. Their reactions to what they’re playing and the music itself conveys a buoyant energy that carries through the entire film. Katz infuses Quiet City with a warm, golden glow of natural and artificial light that continually illuminates the faces of Jamie and Charlie. He mixes artfully composed wide shots that convey a distinct sense of place with a hand-held camera that often zooms in tight to follow the movement of its characters. It’s the most formal and poetic of the mumblecore films I’ve seen to date, which owes much to the outstanding cinematography of Andrew Reed. Already imbued with a certain nostalgia, Quiet City creates the uncanny sense of the past unfolding in the present, as if its two characters are already looking back through the filter of memory at what we see transpire.

Along with Chris Smith’s The Pool and three other films, Quiet City was recently nominated for the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature made for under a half-million dollars. Aaron Katz’a two films – Quiet City and Dance Party USA (which I still haven’t seen) – will be released together on DVD from Benten Films on January 29.

Posted 5 January, 2008


Of the spate of recent mumblecore films, Ronald Bronstein’s debut feature Frownland is easily the most idiosyncratic and distinctive. The film received the Gotham Award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You” and Bronstein was nominated for the Independent Spirit “Someone to Watch” Award. In addition, Chrissie Iles, the film and video curator at the Whitney Museum, also listed Frownland as one of her “Top Ten Films of the Year” in Artforum.

Frownland – the title comes from a Captain Beefheart song – is a character study of a highly dysfunctional, mentally challenged young man named Keith Sontag (Dore Mann), who just happens to resemble David Berkowitz, the notorious Son of Sam. Keith is more or less harmless rather than a serial killer, but, with his overly baggy clothes, grimacing facial tics, and obsessive-compulsive gestures, he nevertheless seems to be a walking time bomb, incredibly frustrated by his inability to connect with those around him.

Bronstein originally wrote a script for the film, but because Frownland is more character-based than plotted, things totally changed once he cast the actors. In an interview with Filmmaker magazine, Bronstein explains:

“In general, I’m pretty disenchanted with the standard industry approach to scriptwriting. I mean, I do find it helpful in terms of mapping out a structure and overarching themes and stuff, but the act of sitting alone in your room and trying to nail on the page the sort of ineffable dimensionality of human inflection just seems so completely backwards to me. ’Cause as soon as you try and pass that set text through an actor’s mouth, ugh, it’s like knocking a square peg through a round hole. All the immediacy and emotionality gets lost. Like a dubbed voice. Maybe this approach can work if you’re making something grounded in heavy plotting, where the characters and the dialogue exist chiefly to move the narrative from A to B. But I want to work in the reverse. I want the progression of the story to form organically out of the characters themselves.”

Frownland begins with Keith watching a monster flick on TV as he eats eggs and popcorn, but he’s interrupted by a call on the intercom from a female comic-artist named Laura (Mary Wall), who cries uncontrollably. She turns out to be equally as dysfunctional. As the two drive through New York streets in her car, Keith tries to find something to say, but he’s incapable of even constructing a coherent sentence. When Laura temporarily disappears from the car, the camera moves closer as Keith contorts his eyes and groans like a monster, eventually causing tears to well up in his eyes – a shot that’s pretty emblematic of the whole movie.

The scenes with Laura, which take up over fifteen minutes, would seem to suggest that this romantic plotline will be at the heart of Keith’s story, but this proves not to be the case. Laura, in fact, largely disappears from the film. Only much later do we learn that Keith believes that Laura, a self-mutilator, has taken money he left on the table. After we are forced to view Keith’s hairy naked body as he takes a shower, Frownland veers in unexpected directions from the initial setup. The film seems to be organized into episodic sequences involving: Laura, Keith’s door-to-door job hawking coupons for charity, encounters with his boss, his tribulations with his arrogant musician roommate, and his attempts to inflict himself on a male friend named Sandy. One structural oddity is the fact that, at roughly sixty-five minutes, the film inexplicably detours into following Charles for an extended period.

Whereas Blake in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days reduces dialogue to incoherent muttering and silence, Keith’s ramblings do not result in any form of mutual exchange either. In fact, Keith’s dialogue only has a corrosive effect on others. Keith’s line, “If I was you and some troll just came out of the water,” causes his boss to speed off in his van. Keith has the ability to drive anyone nuts, which becomes part of the sheer pain and exasperation of watching Frownland. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that female viewers of all ages score the film less than 2 on a 10-point scale on the IMDB Web site. For whatever reason, men seem more tolerant, probably because Frownland is so uncompromising in its portrayal of a truly grotesque male character.

During Keith’s door-to-door solicitation, we learn some background information, namely, that his estranged father died of a heart attack six years earlier. In a later psychiatric session Keith discusses an incident in which his mother ripped off his father’s toupee, exposing his baldness. He remarks, “And it was almost like she had pulled the electrical cord out of its socket.” The offscreen therapist probes, “How did that make you feel?” Keith answers, “Betrayal?” The therapist asks, “Who betrayed you?” After a long pause, Keith responds, “Her?” As Keith continues to ponder this, Bronstein abruptly cuts away. While this scene can be seen as an attempt to provide psychological motivation for Keith’s behavior, he’s actually so damaged that this memory of his father’s emasculation falls hopelessly short of explaining his character.

When an elderly woman informs Keith that solicitation isn’t allowed in the housing complex and neighbors are watching, Keith’s solution is for her to invite him inside to use her bathroom. She naturally refuses, but we later watch as he pees by the dumpster. Keith has other inappropriate responses. He tries to get a woman who works at an Internet café to read a fabricated message from Con Edison to a friend for his birthday. As it turns out, Keith’s musician roommate, Charles (Paul Grimstad), hasn’t been paying the electric bills, which serves as one of the film’s few plot elements.

Keith calls a “friend” named Sandy (David Sandholm) twice, but Sandy refuses to pick up the phone. It’s clear from both his reactions and Keith’s messages on his answering machine that Sandy finds Keith completely annoying. Keith nevertheless shows up at Sandy’s apartment after he returns from work, presumably to retrieve his lost work badge. Sandy displays very little tolerance for Keith, who asks to use his bathroom and watch an old movie, but then falls asleep on the couch. Sandy fast forwards the videotape and indicates it’s time for Keith to leave.

Keith finally finds the nerve to confront Charles about his not paying the electric bill. He begins with another self-deprecating monologue, “I know what I must be like. One of those ghostly-like servants in the turn-of-the century manor houses in England, where you never really know they’re around until you hear a spoon drop.” Charles responds, “Who drops the spoon? You dropped the spoon. You’re a servant? I’m confused.” When Keith tries to explain the anxiety the unpaid bill causes him, Charles answers, “Has it ever occurred to you that your ridiculous, disjointed, splutterings might inspire me to want to malign you? That I might deliberately not pay the bill just to punish you for your pathologies?”

We see another side of Charles in the digressive sequence where he applies for a job at restaurant, takes an LSAT test presumably in hopes of training others for the exam, and ends up getting his Walkman stolen by a fellow test-taker. Already without electricity and faced with being evicted from the apartment, Charles now demands to talk about the situation with Keith, who no longer wants to discuss it. The power dynamic has been reversed temporarily, but Charles still insults Keith about his “mangled syntax” and refers to him as “a burbling troll in his underwear.” As they argue, Charles suddenly punches Keith in the mouth.

The violence escalates when Keith manages to find his way into Sandy’s building. Completely agitated, Keith insists on explaining himself, but the two get into a tussle, leaving Keith with a bloody ear. Keith shows up at a party, where, to the sounds of “Jailhouse Rock,” a couple of drunks place a lampshade on his head, like a dunce, causing him to freak out. Keith stumbles through the halls. He presses his hands to his face and cries and groans loudly, snot dripping from his nose. The next morning, Keith appears on the graffiti-covered roof. He eventually urinates in the corner, as credits appear over the scene, which ends with a closeup shot of Keith’s head buried in his hands as sunlight from behind nearly obliterates his image.

Shot on 16mm, Frownland has the overall feel and texture of an underground comic – dark and extremely hellish. Although Keith Sontag is a very sad and pathetic character, Bronstein never manipulates us into feeling sympathy for him or his plight. Rather he lets us see Keith for exactly who he is – the good and the bad – which is ultimately the film’s strength. There’s nothing endearing about Keith. Unlike its mainstream equivalents – Rain Man or even Good Will Hunting, for that matter – Frownland never resorts to sugar-coated humanism.

Bronstein favors long takes, lots of closeups, frontal shots, and grainy images. There’s a grittiness and deliberate artlessness to the film that reminds me of the DIY look and style of early punk films. While Frownland may not be for everyone, there’s something very authentic and genuine about Bronstein’s portrait of an inveterate loser. Rather than a calling card, the film really feels like a highly eccentric labor of love. As Bronstein describes it: “More succinctly, Frownland is my own small contribution to the sinking barge of the 16mm indie model; both an overripe tomato lobbed with spazmo inaccuracy at the spotless surface of the silver screen and a mad valentine to the craggy tradition of unadulterated cheapo-independent expression.”

Posted 28 December, 2007

I’m Not There

Todd Haynes’s new feature I’m Not There is not the first film to have its protagonist played by multiple actors. Christopher Maclaine did it out of necessity in his early beat classic The Man Who Invented Gold (1957) when he had to take over the main role after two other performers quit. Todd Solondz also used eight different actors to play the young heroine of Palindromes, but the rationale behind the strategy remained pretty sketchy. That’s not the case in Todd Haynes’s brilliant portrait of Bob Dylan, which uses this tactic as a way to deconstruct the biopic.

Even a really good biopic, such as Anton Corbijn’s Control (2007), doesn’t offer much insight into the short-circuited life of Ian Curtis, the tortured lead signer of the band Joy Division. Epilepsy and an impulsive decision to marry while still a teenager and then have a child put Curtis in a straightjacket of his own devising, leading him to commit suicide when he was unable to reconcile the discrepancy between his own sense of self-righteousness and an adulterous affair. The film’s only recourse is to register the pained expression on Sam Riley’s face.

Such facile psychology often provides the motivation for characters not only in biopics, but in narrative films in general. Todd Haynes, for instance, refused to explain Carol White in Safe for this very reason. Haynes responded at the time: “It was very much a strategic plan on my part to try to exclude a lot of information that we usually think we require to know about a character in a film. What that meant was basically excluding the sense of psychological access to a character. When you look at the way we are made to feel secure about knowing a character in a movie, it’s so facile and silly – it’s such a short-hand way.”

With a celebrity personality like Bob Dylan, we only really know him through various mediated depictions. Todd Haynes utilizes the various personae of the man to present a composite if contradictory view of the singer. Some of his conceits are downright hilarious, such as having the early Dylan played by an eleven-year-old African-American boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) as a Woody Guthrie wannabe. There are six other Dylans presented by five other actors. Christian Bale plays the folk singer named Jack Rollins and later the born-again Dylan, Pastor John; Ben Whishaw performs an interview of Dylan as the poet Arthur Rimbaud; Heath Ledger plays Robbie, a movie actor and family man, while Richard Gere plays the reclusive Dylan as Billy the Kid in pastoral sequences from an earlier era involving Pat Garrett’s plans to destroy the town of Riddle, a place that perpetually celebrates Halloween.

If the sequences involving Gere don’t already feel like you’ve entered some Lynchian alternate universe or suddenly been transported into another movie, an ostrich appears and then a giraffe lopes into one of the shots, providing a sense of bizarre exhilaration. At other times in the film, Richie Havens plays music with the young Dylan on a back porch and a fictional Gorgeous George makes a cameo, along with embodiments of Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, a number of Black Panthers, and Moondog, the blind poet and musician who was a street fixture during this era, suggesting that Haynes has created his own Noah’s Ark of 1960s culture.

It is Cate Blanchett’s Dylan, Jude Quinn, however, who provides the glue that holds all the other sequences and elements together. Suffice it to say that her performance is extraordinary, even though her rendition of Dylan is the utterly hostile, bitter, and pretentious one we remember so well from D. A. Pennebaker’s unflattering documentary, Don’t Look Back (1967). Blanchett plays Dylan like a cocksure androgynous marionette, frolicking with the Beatles, verbally sparring with critics, provoking audiences to near riots, mercilessly ridiculing the Edie Sedgwick character, Coco Rivington, after their brief fling, and then castigating his friend and associate, presumably Bobby Neuwirth, who was also in love with her. “Love and sex are things that really hang everybody up,” Jude sneers, as if this banal cliche represents profundity.

To his credit, Haynes leaves out Andy Warhol, Dylan’s bête-noire during this same period. Their conflict over Edie was central in the biopic on her tumultuous life, Factory Girl (2006), a film that seems based on a CliffsNotes version of events. Although he’s not physically there, Warhol, in some strange way, nevertheless hovers likes a ghost over I’m Not There – a ghost behind a ghost, so to speak – because no one understood celebrity culture better than the Pop artist, and no one managed to expose the mass media as such a complete charade.

In fact, Blanchett’s Jude makes the fatal mistake of trying to fill the role celebrity culture demanded of him with disastrous personal consequences, whereas Warhol willfully took the role of con artist as both his personal identity and survival mechanism. If the notion of self as a social construction serves as the basic premise of this film, celebrity culture gives us the fake reassurance that we somehow know these people, while they often get lost in their own hall of distorting mirrors. As Haynes comments of Dylan: “He undermines the things you count on, your touchstones. He shakes up the things that people used to build their own selves on. Every time you grab onto him, he’s somewhere else. I thought the only way to do anything in a film about him would be to dramatize that fact, to use that as the sort of principle to organize the narrative, or many narratives.” Stuck in his own hagiography, Dylan had no real choice other than to mutate, which is something Ian Curtis failed to realize.

I’m Not There uses an associational structure that seamlessly weaves together these various representations of Dylan, moving freely back and forth in time. While the bad-boy scenes with Blanchett are perhaps the most riveting, Haynes manages to make us feel genuine sadness for Robbie’s wife, Claire, and his kids. There’s something about Claire’s acute attention to the children – her continual conversations with them – that creates a sense of the isolated life of a single parent, especially one abandoned by a celebrity partner. Even the way the kids gravitate to Robbie when he turns up at the house suggests where Haynes’s sympathies really lie. It’s not necessarily a flattering portrait of Dylan we get when we puzzle together all the pieces here, but it’s a complex one, full of intra- and extra-textual references to and quotations from American culture, ’60s politics, and films of the period.

You have to admire the sheer audacity of Todd Haynes in making such a risky and difficult film that challenges rather than panders to its audience. J. Hoberman in the Voice has already called it “the movie of the year.” My favorite quote, however, comes from John Anderson of Newsday, who writes, “But ‘I’m Not There’ also takes its audience across a Rubicon of moviegoing disillusionment, apathy, and sloth: If you are, as you say, so tired of the old, then here is the new. Embrace it, or please shut up.”

Posted 25 November, 2007

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

Andy Warhol Screen Tests


© 2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

This is my contribution to the Close-Up Blog-a-thon at The House Next Door.

In thinking of the closeup, I almost invariably gravitate to the films of Andy Warhol, largely because so many of his films privilege this particular framing. In his extended screen test, Henry Geldzahler (1964), the then twenty-nine-year-old Metropolitan Museum of Art curator, loses his protracted battle with the camera, eventually regressing to an infantile state. In Screen Test #1 (1965), one of the longer sound portraits, Philip Fagan, Warhol’s inhibited lover at the time, lacks the verbal dexterity to counter the clever spider’s web of words that Ronald Tavel weaves to ensnare him, so that Fagan’s only response is to refuse to respond and stare silently off-screen, turning the screen test into a strange form of psychodrama. In Blow Job (1964), a film which Oggs Cruz has already written about, Warhol registers the activity of oral sex by concentrating the camera’s attention solely on a reaction shot of the recipient’s face.

The closeup is often used for dramatic emphasis in narrative films, but Warhol made entire films using only this shot, often as a form of portraiture. In the various Warhol Screen Tests – he created 472 of them – the issue of time becomes a crucial and distinguishing element. How can the subject fill up time? For Warhol, time is essentially determined by the length of the film that is running through the camera, even though he ultimately projects it at slower speed. Of the ones I’ve seen, by far the most fascinating screen test is the four-minute silent one of Ann Buchanan (1964), which appears as part of Warhol’s The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women (1964-65) and Four of Andy Warhol’s Most Beautiful Women (1964-69).

The screen test begins with a closeup shot of Ann Buchanan, framed from the neck up. As we view the image, the lighting is distinctly flat. Her left cheek is a bit hotter than the one on the right, which makes her left eye more prominent. We see two points of light reflected in her left eye, while a single point appears in her right one. Her hair is straggly; her facial expression is remarkably neutral. Buchanan stares directly at us, almost as if transfixed by the camera. Buchanan’s eyelids quiver ever so slightly at one point, but she doesn’t blink. Her throat and cheek also move imperceptibly, but Buchanan never loses her concentration. A pinpoint of light appears on the inside part of her right eye, which later flutters again. A minute-and-a-half into the film, what appears to be a tear forms at the bottom of Buchanan’s right eye. A half-minute afterwards, a tear falls from it, followed by another one ten seconds later. Her throat moves, and a third tear rolls down the right side of her cheek. Meanwhile Buchanan’s left eye fills with tears as well, as another from her right eye rolls down her face. Nearly three minutes into the film, a new tear drips from her chin, followed by a tear from her left eye, which continues for the rest of the film.

The fact that Ann Buchanan cries during her screen test is mind boggling. The shock of this is compounded by the utter discrepancy between her deadpan expression and the tears that emanate from her eyes. How in the world has she managed to cry? Do her tears stem from the tension of trying not to blink, or do they derive from her being able to employ the technique of emotional recall? Buchanan was not a Method actor, however, so her screen test confounds our expectations. Callie Angell indicates that this was Warhol’s favorite screen test, and it’s easy to see why. Buchanan’s rigid stare and wide eyes are very doll-like in appearance, so that her spontaneous gesture of crying while being filmed reminds us of one of those crying dolls, inanimate, yet capable of such an uncanny display of emotion.

Posted 20 October, 2007

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