Friday, February 01, 2008

Is Charles Burnett for real?

I mean is Burnett, as so many critics are saying, the great champion of naturalism a la Renoir (a major influence in his life, as he himself is fond of saying)? Which I agree is true to some extent, but is he really only about that? In To Sleep With Anger (1999) there's the suggestion that Harry (Danny Glover) is actually the devil; by the film's final shot a trumpet note, once shaky and amateurish, miraculously turns smooth and beautiful (Stuart Klawans writes about that exact detail in his contribution to Little Black Book of Movies). In The Annihilation of Fish (1999) James Earl Jones has daily wrestling matches with an invisible demon who he daily succeeds in tossing out the window (he's not as cracked as you might think; a second after his hands fling out empty air, the bushes below shiver from the weight of a dropped body).

But even as early as Killer of Sheep (1977) Burnett's been serving up striking, even witty images in a deliciously deadpan manner. A young girl dons a dog mask (Saint Bernard is my guess) and the camera shoots her head-on as she hangs about the house and back yard, forlorn and faintly comical; the camera looks up and a group of children leap across rooftops, their sudden appearance in the bright Angeleno sky as startling as pork in flight.

It's not all visual jokes, though--at the eponymous man's place of work, sheep are hung upside down by the leg and sway gently to and fro, their cut jugulars spraying wool and a nearby wall with a fine coating of blood. And Burnett's camera lingers noticeably on Stan's (Henry G. Sanders) own, often half-naked body, beautiful and powerfully muscled the same time it's almost entirely without power, barely able to muster the energy to pick up a knife and cut linoleum (in my interview of him Burnett notes how pictures of black men being lynched often showed the size and majesty of the man's body; was this something in his mind when he photographed Sanders?). Stan's lethargy is one of the film's central metaphors--he can't sleep, he can't make love, he can hardly do anything (you feel for his wife, who's practically throwing herself at him) beyond draping his sorry ass at the breakfast table and sipping coffee (at one point when Burnett shoots the table from the side the furniture takes on an unsettling resemblance to a chopping block, the people dining on it sides of beef waiting to be butchered).

Then there's the film's title, which is its other central metaphor, not to mention visual and verbal pun--Burnett shoots the slaughterhouse as if it were something out of Dante, but there's a damned beauty to the images; even here (the thick air, the harsh lighting, the bleating goats (their hiccupping cries a parody of annunciating trumpets), the lazily swinging carcasses) Burnett can't help but transform what he sees: the quotidian becomes particular, the ghastly dreamlike and graceful. The reality isn't erased--we see the blood, we see the filth--but Burnett's camera looks at it from a certain angle, lit a certain way, and it becomes more than just blood and filth.

One counts sheep to go to sleep, of course; watching Stan slaughter and strip these creatures makes one think: he's murdering the very animals that might help him sleep, he's murdering his own sleep--a killer of sleep, in effect. The sheep, upside down, are the biggest joke of all: they're limp and languorous, their muscles totally relaxed; they're enjoying their rest--the eternal kind--to the utmost.

Several Friends (1969) was a short done before Killer, and you can see it as some kind of early prototype: the black-and-white photography, the directionless narrative, the similar scene in the car of friends chatting, even the sense one has that the characters, on encountering a problem or issue, prefer to sit around a table and talk it to death. Most striking about the short that I remember was the fight the people sitting in the car were watching, a kind of slow-motioned slapstick routine where neither party seems to get seriously hurt, but neither do they get anywhere, either--violence as aimless, pointless, even surreal play.

The Horse (1973) is a sharp little vignette that features Burnett's use of the long shot, enabling the surrounding farmland to dominate and swallow the characters. It's also, until The Glass Shield (1994) onwards, his most explicit work at that time to deal directly with racism (afterwards, of course, there's Nightjohn (1996), Selma, Lord Selma (1999), and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003). In Burnett's first two features the white man isn't so much dealt with as excluded, an irrelevancy in a rich and teeming non-white world; in The Horse a gang of men gather around the farmhouse to talk about a black farmer and his son as the two deal with the farmer's horse (a knife hanging from a ceiling beam trembles, almost as if in rage at their casual effrontery). Perhaps most interesting is how Burnett treats said animal, like a fellow if mute character with its own closeups and a sudden blackout that leaves its ultimate fate entirely to our imagination.

My Brother's Wedding (1983) is his follow-up feature to Killer, and it tells the story of the prodigal son from the son's point of view. Burnett does a nice little balancing act here--he doesn't excuse Pierce's (Everett Silas) weaknesses, but by telling it this way he allows us to understand the man, even sympathize a little. Yes, Pierce is rude and even cruel to his brother and sister-in-law to be, but Burnett also implies that Pierce's antipathy comes from his belief that his brother has sold out--delivered body and soul to the Devil (or Mammon) to become yet another upper middle-class white-wannabe. Most visually notable is the Laundromat, presented as a portal through which passes all kinds of visitors bearing all kinds of gifts (desire; danger; heedless mischief), and the storage room behind, a forest of plastic-wrapped mystery, befuddlement (the occasional lost item), even erotic abandonment (quick sex on the floor, atop piled-up laundry). Like The Horse, My Brother's Wedding has a longish buildup to an abbreviated end--here, a giant, fateful closeup of the wedding ring that has caused so much trouble.

Killer of Sheep may be one of Burnett's best-known works, but the almost entirely unknown When it Rains (1995) is easily critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's favorite
. A lovely little parable set in the Watts district and scored to some wondrous jazz, the film chronicles an old man's (Ayuko Babu) attempts to raise money for a mother and her daughter in danger of eviction on New Year's. From the opening image--of a Christmas tree leaping a wall--onwards it's full of fabulous imagery; for its last shot Burnett tracks slowly away from a jazz player blowing on a trumpet with three horns, its music filling the soundtrack. On either side of the player--his feet planted on a street corner, of course--are a pair of latticed windows stretching outward like wings, the whole staged and shot as if the player were on a concert stage receiving the full star treatment.

That final image just about sums up Burnett's magic. He's no mere realist; he's a poet of realism. He employs actual locations and non-actors partly out of necessity (he rarely has the money to do or hire more), partly out of preference (non-actors, he says in a recent NPR interview, have no ego nor agenda). The end result is a firm foundation of realism from which his camera is able to take off on startling flights of fancy. The material Burnett deals with--poor to middle-class African-Americans, from their slavery past to their economically and racially oppressed present--is perhaps too grim for straightforward documentary treatment; or rather, Burnett feels it's not so much intolerable as incomplete. There is beauty out there, even in the poorer sections of Los Angeles, even in the cotton plantations of the South--you just need to look at it from a certain angle, through a certain sensibility. Burnett finds those angles, develops that sensibility, shares them with us on the big screen.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Vera,

Thank you for this post. Burnett has been one of my favorite filmmakers. Critics call him the greatest contemporary American film director (well, his not the best but certainly up there).

His KILLER OF SHEEP is a gem that the world should experience. I've only seen KILLER and TO SLEEP WITH ANGER so I can't relate to some of the films.

But please, write more articles like this. I would want to see one about ABBAS KIAROSTAMI or MIKE LEIGH.

Hope to read more from you. Thank you for all the review of our local film industry. Films from John Torres and Raya Martin should be watched around the world.

Viva Revolusyonaries
-- Raymund Cruz

Noel Vera said...

Dear Raymund; long long belated reply: thanks for the kind words...