The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo

 

sex, lies, and videotape

 

The success of films such as Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It, Working Girls, and River’s Edge solidified the position of American independent film within the marketplace in the1980s, but Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape raised the stakes considerably by grossing nearly $25 million domestically – ten times what Jarmusch’s film had done only half a decade before. At the1989 Sundance Film Festival where sex, lies, and videotape debuted, the film became an overnight sensation, winning the coveted Audience Award and selling domestic theatrical rights to Miramax for nearly the sum of its $1.2 million budget. Sex, lies, and videotape went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, bolstering its reputation on an international level. The film did exceptionally well in virtually every market, eventually grossing nearly $100 million worldwide, thereby convincing, in Filmmaker’s words, “a legion of cell-phone toting Hollywood types that there was gold to be had in the hills of Utah.”

Even the twenty-six-year-old Soderbergh seemed to have been caught off-guard by the velocity of media attention his film managed to generate. He had actually pre-sold the domestic and foreign video rights in order to finance the film – a fairly common method of financing for low-budget pictures. The decision probably cost Soderbergh a huge chunk of the profits, but this only underscores the fact that independently produced films are often no more than entry tickets into the big lottery of commercial distribution. On one level, sex, lies, and videotape might seem to be an unlikely winning stub. The film has a distinctly Southern regional flavor. The credits indicate that it was shot on location in Soderbergh’s hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but the film hardly utilizes the urban landscape of the city in any significant way. Most of the film takes place within the confines of four indoor locations. When characters at one point walk down a street, all we see is a graffiti-strewn back wall that seems to suggest a “set” rather actual location. On top of this, sex, lies, and videotape has such a functional visual style that it might easily be mistaken for a filmed play.

Sex, lies, and videotape does have a lot of things going for it, however, especially a top-flight ensemble cast, which features James Spader, Andie MacDowell, Peter Gallagher, and Laura San Giacomo. Even the title itself has a certain catchy-ness that manages to conjure up steamy intrigue. Everyone, it turns out, has a tabloid desire to know about bedroom secrets, especially when there is visual evidence to back them up. John Pierson, whose marketing savvy enabled him to turn many modest, low-budget independent films into commercial successes, explains the hook of the film’s strongest element, namely, its extremely mature and well-written script:

Sex, lies, and videotape caught the popular imagination with its unerring delineation of the moment’s zeitgeist. The veneer of the eighties was cracking; the devastation of AIDS discouraged promiscuous coupling. The film presented a rare portrayal of a sensitive, vulnerable male, along with a beautiful, neurotic wife, a sexpot sister, and a crass, cheating husband. It was serious, thoughtful, funny and it pushed the edge of what was allowable on screen. Early on, Soderbergh admitted a strong autobiographical element, but he soon played this down since the film spoke very directly to its viewers’ own relationships – a kind of yuppie Rorschach test.”

Sex, lies, and videotape tells the simple story of a damaged young man, Graham, who comes to town and impacts a triangle of characters by exposing their hidden secrets. It reads like a Tennessee Williams play transposed to a contemporary setting, with a video camera serving as its main probing device. Sex, lies, and videotape dredges up various kinds of sexual issues: fear of intimacy, marital infidelity, male impotence, sexual frigidity, sexual addiction, voyeurism, oral sex, and masturbation. And lurking behind them all is another favorite Williams’ theme: the damaging effect that mendacity can have on personal realtionships.

Sex, lies, and videotape has a rather straightforward thee-act structure. The first turning point occurs when Ann discovers the sexual nature of Graham’s videotape, which causes her to change her feelings about Graham. The second turning point happens when Ann finds Cynthia’s diamond earring – the incriminating proof that her husband and sister are indeed having an affair – an event that sends her back to Graham. In terms of screen time, the first turning point occurs at 37 minutes, while the second takes place at 67 minutes. Since the film has a running time of 98 minutes, sex, lies, and videotape has a first act of 37 minutes, a very short second act of 30 minutes, and a third act of 31 minutes.

More than anything, sex, lies, and videotape is a character study. Although Ann is the film’s clear protagonist and the story is told through her point of view, the other three characters are more or less given equal weight. Ann, however, is not a typical goal-driven protagonist. She’s having too many problems coping, which is why she is in therapy. Ann has only a vague sense that things are wrong, but it is really Graham who triggers the events in the film. Graham, however, turns out to be just as lost and confused as Ann. In fact, the four characters in the script can be broken down into pairs: Ann and Graham – both fragile souls in search of spiritual fulfillment – and John and Cynthia, who have opted for the joys of carnal pleasure. The strength of the very tight and economical script derives from having these characters collide in various intimate and explicit ways.

Ann Millaney, at first glance, would seem to have everything. She’s extremely attractive and enjoys the security of being married to a handsome and wealthy young lawyer named John, but cracks already have begun to appear in her straight, middle-class armor. In her therapy session, she seems extremely evasive, deflecting intimate questions about herself onto such things as the garbage problem. She tells her therapist: “Did you know that the average person produces three pounds of garbage a day?” When the psychiatrist asks what triggered this concern, Ann connects the issue to John. Ann has other neurotic worries besides. In her next therapy session, her concerns switch to the Greenhouse Effect and radon leakage. And previously, she has fixated on the families of airline fatalities.

Despite Ann’s inability or unwillingness to recognize her own personal problems, there are clearly issues in her marriage. For one thing, Ann admits to her therapist that things have cooled sexually between her and John. Even though Ann plays down her interest in sex, the situation bothers her nevertheless. She tells her therapist: “Like I said, it’s not that I miss it, but I’m curious the way things kind of slacked off all of a sudden.” The fact that Ann no longer wants John to touch her has actually been precipitated by John’s lack of interest in her sexually, as well as the fact that she senses his infidelity. Ann’s good looks also have something to do with her problems. Deep down, she resents being John’s trophy wife. Ann wants to be appreciated for who she is rather than for her natural beauty. She complains to Graham that John treats everybody the same: “And so I feel like, what’s different about me, if I’m treated exactly the same as some acquaintance.”

Graham comments about Ann’s good looks when they have lunch together. He says that she’s “got to be the most attractive self-conscious person I’ve ever seen.” Her self-consciousness, he contends, has to do with her recognition that people like John are attracted to her because of her appearance. Even though Graham has not as yet met Cynthia, he also understands intuitively the underlying dynamic between the two sisters. Since Cynthia doesn’t have Ann’s good looks, she uses sex as a weapon to level the playing field between them. Soderbergh’s description of Cynthia in the script hints at this. He writes: “Cynthia bears a slight resemblance to Ann, but is not as overtly attractive. She does, however, have a definite carnal appeal and air of confidence that Ann lacks.” Cynthia gets tremendous pleasure and satisfaction from stealing Ann’s husband away from her. Her erotic desire becomes even more heightened when she screws John in her sister’s own bed. Later on in the film, when Cynthia makes her videotape, she asks Graham whether he thinks she’s pretty? When Graham answers affirmatively, Cynthia asks, “Prettier than Ann?” Graham simply responds, “Different.”

Graham turns out to be the perfect person to bring Ann’s repressed problems to the surface. The two are alike in the sense that Graham certainly doesn’t fit in either. When Graham first shows up at the door, he dispenses with polite formalities and rushes off to use the bathroom. Graham has an unorthodox lifestyle, but it represents a deliberate choice. In the face of life’s complexities, Graham has chosen to drop out and live out of his car. Graham is like an older Holden Caulfield, bristling at the pretentiousness he finds around him. He ridicules his parents, especially his Anglophile mother, whom he calls “a prisoner of public television now.” But Graham has the greatest contempt for liars, whom he claims are the second lowest people in the world – after lawyers. Unlike Ann, Graham has turned his back on straight convention and prefers the simplicity of trying to limit his life to a single key. John smugly tells Graham to get rid of his car when he rents an apartment, and he’ll still have one key.

Graham and John, the old fraternity buddies, have clearly changed in the intervening years. Soderbergh describes John as “dressed very well, sporting real suspenders with his striped pinpoint oxford shirt and cotton suit.” This contrasts with Graham whom he describes as “punk/arty, but neither would do him justice.” John comments brashly on the change, asking: “What do you think the Greeks would make of that outfit you’re wearing.” John is on the fast track to success. He’s a junior partner in a big law firm, with a spacious office overlooking the river. He has been given his first major corporate client, but his arrogance and penchant for risky behavior sets up his later downfall.

John complains that since he’s gotten married, women are all over him. But his revelation to Graham that he had sex with his old girlfriend, Elizabeth, shows that John has always used sex as a weapon of power, especially over other males. John’s behavior with Cynthia also suggests that he is probably a sex addict as well, because he continues to risk losing an important new business client in order to satisfy his incessant sexual desire. Graham comments indirectly about this to Ann, when he tells her: “I mean, honestly, I haven’t known many guys that could think straight with an erection, so I feel I’m way ahead of the game as far as clear-headed goes.” Cynthia’s compulsive sexual behavior parallels John’s. It represents an attempt on her part to overcompensate for her own insecurities. As a result, Cynthia is completely guy-crazy. In her videotape for Graham, she tells a very revealing story about her first encounter with a penis, in which she describes it as a completely separate entity from the person to whom it belongs.

Although John and Cynthia are much less sympathetic characters than Ann and Graham, both Ann and Graham end up revealing hidden sides of themselves. Contrary to her professed lack of interest in sex, Ann eventually admits to being turned on by other men. She has repressed this aspect of herself because it reminds her of Cynthia. Graham also has his own secrets, which only surface when he’s pressed by Ann during her videotape. It turns out that Graham’s professed hatred of liars stems from his own unfaithfulness to his old girlfriend, Elizabeth. He has become frightened by intimacy because of the vulnerability it entails. Rendered impotent by his last relationship, Graham has retreated into the safety of relating to people only from the distance provided by the video camera and TV monitor. Voyeurism has become a convenient defense for Graham until Ann finally forces him to respond to her physically.

Sex, lies, and video exploits the voyeuristic and pornographic associations between sex and the medium of video. Yet, for a film whose hook is obviously sex, sex, lies, and videotape actually contains very little explicit visual material. The film talks about sex in very graphic detail instead. In terms of the eroticism of the film, the viewer shares a position very much akin to Graham’s. We are titillated by the intimate revelations of the characters who talk about things ignored by most films – very personal feelings of sexual inadequacy and vulnerability. In the process, the video camera becomes exposed as a sexual weapon, as Ann turns the tables on Graham and forces him to reveal his own sexual secrets, allowing her to change roles from passive informant into empowered interrogator. In doing so, the film provides a reflexive comment on the psychoanalytic aspects of the film-viewing situation itself. Soderbergh underscores this point brilliantly during Ann’s videotape session, where he crosscuts and overlaps the taping of her sexual confession and John’s replay of it on the TV monitor, which ambiguously confuses the two and references it to the film we are actually watching, thereby cleverly creating a film-within-a-film-within-a-film structure.

In terms of his subsequent career, Soderbergh has refused to be pigeon-holed, deliberately opting to work with different genres and budgets, and even to direct other people’s material. Sex, lies, and videotape, nevertheless, has had an enormous influence on subsequent independent films. As Geoff Andrew has written:

“Sex, lies and videotape proved once and for all that it was quite possible to make a critically and commercially successful film on a low-budget, using a small cast of comparatively unknown actors, a handful of locations and a low-key, sensitive, literate script; as such, it was influential in encouraging other young American film-makers to follow suit in making character-driven chamber-pieces.”

The elements that Andrew cites – its low-budget, minimum number of locations, ensemble cast, and character-driven story – can be found in numerous American independent productions that turn up each year at festivals such as Sundance and Slamdance. The differentiating aspect of Soderbergh’s film rests largely with its unusually smart script, which managed to address something in American culture that had been largely repressed at the time, namely, people’s very real fears of sex in an age in which sex had become so intimately associated with death.

Posted 16 February, 2008

Police Beat

One of the best as well as most underappreciated independent films of the past several years is Robinson Devor’s Police Beat, which played at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, received a modest theatrical release, and finally came out on DVD only this past summer.

The script was written by Devor and Charles Mudede, who writes about crime, among other subjects, for Seattle’s alternative newspaper, The Stranger. Like Maya Deren and Sasha Hammid’s avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and such indie films as Lodge Kerrigan’s Clean, Shaven and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Police Beat revels in extreme subjectivity, exaggerated by the use of an anamorphic lens. The film deals with the relationship between the inner mental state of its conflicted protagonist, Z (Pape Sidy Niang), an immigrant bicycle cop from Africa, and the harsh reality he encounters on a daily basis. In this case, we are presented with a crime film, in which Z merely goes through the motions in his investigations of disturbing and horrific acts that occur around Seattle – someone decapitates a large bird in the public park, a gruesome knifing, a suicide, or a man suddenly devours raw meat in a supermarket – while his own anger remains largely repressed.

Police Beat opens with a bloated corpse floating in the water. As Z stares at the body, it’s clear that he is far more preoccupied with his own doomed interracial love affair with a woman named Rachel, whom we see him kiss in a brief flashback. She has decided to go on an extended camping trip with her male roommate (Jeff), cancelling her planned dancing lesson with Z, while continuing to lead him on. Z wonders, “Who teaches that kind of understanding?” While investigating an incident in which an elderly woman claims to have been attacked in her yard and struck on the head, Z fantasizes a scene in which Rachel visits her grandfather, who suggests that both she and Jeff have no respect for Z’s feelings. Z tells the victim, “Your tree is dead. And if it is not chopped down, it will continue to harm and disturb the living.” It’s a lesson that he might apply to his own mad infatuation. While later getting a massage from Mary, Z remarks, “Lovesickness is pain. It has physicality. It’s as real as a lump.”

The voiceover narration, which is in Z’s own native language of Wolof and translated into English subtitles, conveys his growing sense of personal anguish, self-doubt, and alienation. When Rachel doesn’t respond to his numerous phone calls, he stands on a train overpass and rants, “Comes from Africa! Has green card! Two car payments left! Desires to be a fast reader! Takes an American Presidents class! Plans to purchase apartment building in Federal Way! Most women would find that to be an attractive man.” Throughout Police Beat, Z struggles unsuccessfully to decipher and adapt to the confusing mores of his adopted country. When Rachel finally calls and tells him she misses him around halfway through the film, Z literally jumps up and down while skipping rope in a puddle against the backdrop of the city skyline, but his temporary exuberance is only a setup for an even greater letdown. He later concludes that both relationships and the world are “cruel.”

In the film’s only real subplot, Swan, Z’s white police partner from Alaska, has also lost his bearings. He falls for a prostitute from Wisconsin named Mary, and proceeds to engage in unprotected sex and drug use. Z can’t comprehend Swan any better than either Rachel or Mary, who chooses to give up her young child to social services rather than (as Z suggests) to leave him with a family member. There are scenes in which Z rides in the back of a police car with other officers. Z dreams of moving up from being a bicycle cop to having his own patrol car. His superior offers encouragement, but counsels Z to be more observant and careful in his reports so that they will stand up in court. Is Z being turned into an informer? As the film progresses toward its conclusion, Swan gets busted for his illegal activities. Z complains about the humiliating manner in which his partner is arrested, but Mary accuses Z of turning in Swan. Z never denies it.

Z serves as a kind of moral reference point in the film. He loses patience with a bicyclist, who rails against the evil policies of George Bush and threatens to kill him. This offends Z, who tells him, “If you don’t know about the law, I will tell you right now. Threatening the life of the president is threatening my life too.” This shows Z’s conservative nature, but also how out of touch he really is with the local denizens. In a recent interview in the Canadian film magazine CineAction, Mudede explains this aspect of Z’s character: “What I wanted to show is that actually my experience, as an African, of Africans, is that they’re very conservative. They actually think Europeans are kind of wild and crazy and have no regard of tradition, of history, of customs. And in that sense, you have this guy who comes into this country, and he’s looking around him, and he is really trying to adjust to a new and more flexible kind of moral reality.” At one point Z attends the lindy dance session that he originally had bought for Rachel, but, caught up in the spirit of dancing, he kisses his female partner, managing to provoke a minor ruckus.

Z, however, becomes so obsessed with his love relationship that it starts to feel as if he’s becoming as unhinged as the rest of the characters in the film, especially after Rachel acknowledges her infidelity. At one point, he even says, “She does not understand she has said such amazing things to a man with a gun,” suggesting that Z might himself be capable of committing a heinous crime, especially when someone is toying with his feelings. He laughs and vows, “Rachel, I will destroy you.” A sense of foreboding and tension builds as Z investigates a new crime scene and imagines hugging Rachel, but the film ends on an ambiguous note.

Devor has expressed little regard for mainstream conventions, telling Tom Charity in cinema scope, he didn’t even bother to shop the script in either New York or LA because “I knew I would never get financing there.” According to Devor, “Somebody said they liked the film because it wasn’t a traditional three-act structure character arc. It definitely isn’ that. Let’s face it, it really was an experiment.” Police Beat manages to hold the viewer’s attention largely through Z’s impassioned interior monologue, the semi-surreal and often filtered images of cinematographer Sean Kirby, the poetic and inventive text of Z’s police reports, episodic structure, and superb musical score. These elements help to turn Police Beat into an engaging mood piece and fascinating character study that ends up being much closer to the spirit of international art cinema than a classical Hollywood narrative. A film like Police Beat makes a strong case that authentic indie films continue to be made despite what industry spin doctors and their apologists would have us believe.

Produced by the non-profit Northwest Film Forum, the low-budget and regionally flavored Police Beat is one of the most insightful films made about the recent immigrant experience by allowing us to perceive American culture and, hence, ourselves through the pained eyes and naked vulnerability of a true outsider.

Posted 3 February, 2008

A Family Finds Entertainment

Ryan Trecartin’s A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) initially came to the attention of the art world in an article by Dennis Cooper as one of the emerging artist picks in Artforum complete with the backstory of how video artist Sue de Beer discovered the work while on tour when someone showed her an excerpt on a social networking site. Trecartin’s forty-one minute madcap video went on to become one of the major hits of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Trecartin was picked up by Elizabeth Dee Gallery in Chelsea, and his work has since been included in the Saatchi Collection, cementing the young artist’s status as one of the art world’s hot new talents.

This past Fall, Trecartin had his first one-person show at Elizabeth Dee, where his latest video, the feature-length I-Be Area (2007), played in the back room as part of the exhibition. The new work displays much of the same manic inventiveness that distinguished Trecartin’s previous effort. In it, Trecartin morphs into a an assortment of different personae, while exploring issues of gender and identity, cloning, Internet adoption, and other aspects of digital culture. Trecartin’s characters share an idiosyncratic method of line delivery and stylized acting derived from campy children’s TV shows, as well as the video artist’s penchant for hysteria, chaos, destruction – reminiscent of Red Grooms – and ’70s-patterned clothes. Once more Trecartin’s use of color is wildly hallucinogenic, as characters’ bodies literally become canvasses for the artist’s carnival-like sense of bright acidic colors and wacky costuming, so that they all might easily be mistaken for clowns.

Although Trecartin works from a script, what’s truly amazing about his videos is how he is able to translate his vision to so many different performer friends, who in turn add an improvisational aspect to the work. In an interview on Filmbrats, Trecartin told Joe Swanberg, “I worked from a script extremely . . . But it wasn’t a line: process out of order and everything changed all the time. (Actors changed things and freedom happened) It was really malleable like playing football in a circle field. Like all nasty. It was a script.” The mannered language of Trecartin’s description of the process is not all that different from the zany speech patterns his characters employ in his videos. A Family Finds Entertainment has more of an overarching narrative than I-Be Area, as well as a layered density that creates a compressed sense of visual and sensory overload. Both image and sound, including the voices of the characters, are often so digitally manipulated that when simple live-action passages appear, they seem downright mundane and boring in comparison.

An energetic mixture of live action, animation and digital special effects, A Family Finds Entertainment is a teenage “coming out” film – a seeming indictment of the “poisonous” and incestuous aspects of the nuclear family. It tells the story of Skippy, a closeted gay teen, who, following a failed attempt at committing suicide, discovers queer sex, gets outed by his parents, and then banished from home. After briefly becoming the subject of a documentary film, Skippy gets hit by a car, before becoming born again at a wild party that culminates in a massive display of fire works. While Skippy’s story manages to provide the narrative thread that holds it all together, the video feels more like a medley. Various characters come and go, change identity, introduce non-sequiturs, play group games, engage in musical interludes, break into lengthy monologues, or chant advice like a Greek chorus. Even a large sea shell ends up conveying an important message to Skippy. Trecartin’s video seems like a TV “after-school special” gone bonkers.

A Family Finds Entertainment begins with colorful visual static, and the sound of thunder. A small white dog stares at the camera, then runs off as a light flashes. A young girl named Lisa opens the door of a closet and a clown-like guy (Trecartin) in painted face pops out, causing her to laugh. He asks, “Do I have to stay in here forever?” Trecartin, now dressed as a blond-haired woman and exaggerating the wiggle of her butt, chases Lisa upstairs with a spotlight and sits on her bed. Lisa’s mother comes to the door and sternly asks, “Lisa, what are you doing out of bed? It’s midnight.” As the mother leaves, she announces, “Lisa, it’s you that I love.” Lisa sits back down on the bed and suggests that she has a story inside a box – “like a bed-time story” – which provides a narrative frame for what follows.

We then blast off into outer space. Cheesy psychedelic graphics introduce four young people in a room. The screen divides into various planes of action. We see grainy live-action images, and then a shot of Ben playing a guitar, as Asher sings, “Show me something beautiful and I will live. Show me something to hold on to, and I will hold on.” The camera moves in closer to him, then dissolves to a woman in a green dress (later identified as Veronica) telling Ben, “That was so romantical,” and then addressing the singer, “And Asher, I loved that more than anything.” After Asher indicates the band plans to go on tour, Veronica turns and says, “Patty Mae, I hate you so much.” Patty Mae points to another woman and asks, “What about her?” Veronica proclaims, “I never waste my time on people who are muddy or inconvenient.” The other woman responds, “I’m not mud, it’s dirt. I fell down a hill,” as she makes a zig-zag pattern with her hands. Veronica then shifts her attention and demands, “Skippy, open that fucking fuck door of yours.”

Inside the bathroom, his voice altered to a lower pitch, Skippy (played by Trecartin) responds, “Never.” Ben and Asher suddenly get up to leave, and Veronica yells, “Skippy, your music friends are leaving because the show was a boring bore.” Skippy uses duct tape to attach a knife to the bathroom mirror. A frame within a frame appears and a smaller image of Skippy’s head tumbles down as he bends to turn on the bath water. Skippy announces, “I’m not sixteen anymore, but I feel like I’m five with sunglasses on.” He takes a Polaroid of himself and tries to flush it down the toilet. In a Southern accent Skippy insists, “I believe that somewhere there is something worth dying for, and I think it’s amazing.”After they leave, Skippy cuts his arm with the huge knife in a suicide attempt, as red paint pours down from the top of the frame. Covered in blood, Skippy runs outside and through the snow to a highway overpass, and then uses a garbage can cover to slide down a snowy hill.

An image of Skippy appears over a window, which then spins around as the screen divides into multiple images and Trecartin emplys other digital effects. Various friends respond to Skippy’s suicide attempt. A woman says, “For an evening I’ll cry for you. Not because I care, but because I’m emotional.” Two other women express hatred, which catches Skippy off-guard. One of the women chimes in, “I’ll give you a reason to die . . . to kill.” The white-faced Skippy responds, “Last night in a dream, I was told lots of things.” The woman in the purple dress denies this. They all recite in unison, “Open your eyes, cock. What you want isn’t what you need. What you need is right in front of you. But you have to feel it.” As everyone screams hysterically and one of the women cries, Skippy, holding a knife, continues to maintain, “I did it for fun” and “It’s funny.” Suddenly back in the bathroom again, Skippy wonders who bandaged his arm.

Tina enters, bringing a large seashell that contains a simple message for Skippy: “Don’t do it.” Tina warns, “Be careful of listening. It’s very influential.” Veronica then picks up the seashell. We hear the sound of running water and see a layered image that includes the seashell, tropical foliage, and a small snowman-like figure with a sign that says, “I prefer the tropics.” Veronica proclaims the shell to be amazing, and claims, “It’s like a vortex to the southern breeze.” Tina knocks on the door and announces that “Patty Mae is here.” This motivates Patty Mae, dressed in red and white, to do a minute-and-a half performance about the fact that she is actually in the room and not in the land of boys. As she continues her inspired monologue, Trecartin alters the pitch of her voice so that she sounds like one of the Chipmunks. Patty Mae concludes, “I need to accomplish something with my stuff.”

After more digital graphics, Skippy asks, “What was that?” The muddy woman explains, “A digital relic from a future age of cyber-chaos and analog holocaust.” We see a TV monitor that shows an abstract and colorful fish. The people on the monitor talk in high voices and we see shots of actual fish. Trecartin asks whether they’re ready to play the game. They proceed to play a game of cards in which they attempt to identify images in drawings. We hear words like “pooping” and “surfing,” and “fish.” The players then become concerned about their appearance, and one of them (later identified as Billy) exposes his genitalia, as everyone else laughs hysterically. The disc is turned over at intermission.

Billy lies naked on the couch (he has a white paint around his mouth and his erect white penis has been colored black). Skippy indicates that he has messy dreams and needs to be more confident. He insists, “No more fake blood for me. I want the real thing,” placing his hand on Billy’s penis. His mother, smoking a cigarette with exaggerated gestures, indicates her son is “mad . . . he’s like an alien . . . totally.” Skippy enters a room marked “Jesse and Hanks.” After greeting his parents, he asks, “What are you looking at?” His mother answers, “Son you need to give it up, yeah. This family is poisonous, yeah. You need to find a new home.” As his mother says this, she demonstrates the concept of home through a gesture with her hands, while her much younger husband chews gum.” Skippy’s father says the word “snake,” to which Skippy answers, “Mama is a snake. Yes, she is. Mama’s a snake.” His mother goes into the refrigerator, takes out an egg, and smashes it on the floor. Skippy’s father winks as he says “I love Skippy. I think he’s a winner.” His mother grabs the knife. She says to Skippy, “I’ll burn you like a witch, butt-plugger. I know your secret kept very well. Go eat some estrogen, homo.” His dad chimes in,”Yeah, with your gay friend, Billy.” Skippy asks, “How you know about Billy?”

Skippy’s mother opens the bedroom door, and Billy strolls in naked, even though Skippy continues to be in denial. His mother indicates that “family is poison” and that he “needs to find his home boys.” She takes a fifty-dollar bill out of her brassiere, gives it to Skippy, who rips open his shirt and puts it inside his own bra. His mother then orders him to “get the fuck out,” but, before he leaves, Skippy and his father share a lascivious kiss. Once outside, Skippy runs into a documentary video artist named Zoey, who wants to make a movie of him with her night-vision camera. As Skippy sprints into the street, he’s hit by a car driven by three other teenagers, including the muddy girl. The female driver says, “What the fuck was that?” The guy responds, “Some fucking fuck shit.” They laugh uncontrollably. The muddy girl complains, “Nobody understands me.” The driver explains that they’re only hanging out with her because their mothers are close friends.

Trecartin cuts from Skippy’s face to a colorful re-mixed song-and-dance number involving a red-haired young woman named Shin (played by Trecartin) and her friends, including Billy, complete with various digital effects. Shin screams, “So Honest! I can’t believe it. We are so unpredictable.” One of Shin’s friends, Linda, gets a phone call from Zoey about a boy named Skippy being hit by a car, but it takes awhile before Shin actually gets the message. Zoey asks for advice, but Shin responds, “Just keep filming him.” Shin then calls numerous friends to invite them to a party, as the screen breaks into fifteen images of talking heads at once. In a highly psychedelic sequence, someone asks, “Who’s outside?” Like a kind of Greek chorus, the group chants, “Skippy’s outside.” The person asks, “Am I his friend? Who is Skippy anyway?” Various answers are given: identity failure, exercise, a boring piece of homework, artificial intelligence, cosmic puke, and Michelella. The group repeats various aphorisms, such as, “We inhale anything. We can handle it.” Several guys, including Ben, hang out in a clubhouse. Two more guys arrive and announce that there is a dead boy outside and that a woman is filming him. Only Ben seems to have any misgivings about this news.

Amidst the Dionysian frenzy that ensues once Shin’s party begins, the narrative appears to be temporarily forgotten. But Skippy, or possibly his ghost, eventually rises from the moonlit street and announces, “I hear music.” As a musical note and other symbols float over the scene, Zoey suggests, “You should follow it.” Skippy replies,” I will.” Trecartin cuts to Shin bouncing up and down to music. Carrying a giant flaming sunflower, she leads the party outside, where the revelers sing the same song that Asher sang earlier, and a kind of baptism occurs in a round child’s swimming pool, which seems to transform Shin back into Skippy. In split-screen, the party culminates in a huge display of exploding fireworks, as Skippy dances ecstatically through the streets. Voices then yell for everyone to go inside. We see Skippy, who closes the door to a house. This is followed by credits, indicating that the video is “Dedicated to my Mom and Dad.”

I showed A Family Finds Entertainment last year as part of the Spotlight Film and Video series at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA). It can be viewed in segments on YouTube

Posted 27 January, 2008

Frownland

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

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

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