Monday, December 9, 2013

Killer of Sheep

This is the fourth post in Film Stock, a series of reviews appreciating the greatest movies of all time. Charles Burnett's 1977 UCLA thesis film Killer of Sheep is featured today.

Killer of Sheep
Directed by Charles Burnett
Released in 1977 (Theatrically in 2007)

Charles Burnett sees so much in life, but so few options in living. Brimming with the little details only the most discerning of artists can subtly capture, Killer of Sheep also offers little, if any, solutions to its characters’ many problems. Time and circumstance herd these men and women through narrow corridors, with sprints of liberating motion now and then, like those eponymous sheep. Killer of Sheep is one of the saddest films I have seen, a superlative all the more remarkable for how steadfastly it eschews histrionics and familiar tragic structure. 

Stan (Henry Gale Sanders) is depressed. Passive voice could describe almost every scene of his, for he seems to have no control of his life. In Watts, Los Angeles, he works in a slaughterhouse killing sheep and cleaning up their blood. At home, his wife (Kaycee Moore) feels unloved and his children lack guidance. A white suburban mother would cringe at how these young boys play: throwing stones at one another, hanging under unmoving train cars, swinging wrenches like toys. One of the boys breaks into tears by the end of almost any encounter, whether he gets fistfuls of sand in his eyes or ridicule from girls in the street. He possesses too soft a disposition to make it on these mean streets. 

So, too, does Stan. With nods to crime in his past, Killer of Sheep presents a wealth of opportunities, in an ostensibly short period of time, for Stan to seize. He could work in a liquor store, managed by a strong white woman, though he worries about the not infrequent hold-ups. He could fix a car with a motor he buys, except it breaks minutes after buying it because his so-called friend insists the very edge of a pickup truck’s flatbed is all the space it needs. He could work with two old criminal associates, whose slick leather jackets remind Stan that to dress nice demands bad things. He could just make a choice and get away and changes things for the better, except he cannot.

If Stan spends most of the film moping at his life’s failures, it is his wife who we, as an audience, latch onto as the story’s moral center. With Kaycee Moore’s beautiful, dignified looks (they recall Michelle Obama’s), the wife, who goes unnamed, bares the tolls of the poor hand her family has been dealt in the most cinematic terms. In a repeated medium shot portrait, Burnett lingers on her face as she verges on tears and strokes her undisciplined hair. In a daytime dance with her husband to the tune of Dinah Washington’s well-used “This Bitter Earth,” she struggles to salve the love between them. It appears to go well, with Stan swaying and allowing his wife to squeeze him, but any connection ruptures once the song ends and Stan bolts it for the door. For a man who has given up hope, even the beautiful things in life serve Stan as sexless obligations. For a woman who hasn’t, it tears his wife to pieces.

Shot in 16mm for Burnett’s UCLA thesis film, Killer of Sheep embraces its budgetary shortcomings as a means to tell its story further, in more subtle and atmospheric ways. In an early kitchen scene, refrigerator door slams and the clatter of glassware drown out the unanswered questions Stan’s wife lobs to him. Their pitiful ability to communicate with one another is tethered to the very acoustics of the room. Not long later, their daughter (Angela Burnett) sings Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons” in an out-of-tune, albeit adorably passionate, register. In the room over, her mother applies make-up, in what is surely an attempt to doll up for her husband’s pleasure, and smiles at her child’s full-throated commitment to the music. Any number of thoughts pass her mind as she listens to her daughter’s scratchy voice — I didn’t know she loves that band ... Does she sing to be happy? ... If only we could afford her a musical education... — but we sense, too, that the artistry and innocence of this moment inspires her more than anything else. 

Burnett returns to the slaughterhouse where Stan toils his days throughout the film, and it is there where he ends it. A long shot of sheep running up a bottlenecking dispatch midway through the film haunts a later shot, of Stan and his friend walking down an alleyway. Above them, boys jump between rooftops, or come close to flying. They are living the happiest days of their lives, whether they realize it or not. Stan does not envy his son’s youth or happiness. As the final scene discloses, Stan smiles at work — where he chains writhing sheep up to a conveyor belt seconds before a technician slits their throats. He’s not even the executioner; he’s more an everyday Charon, ferrying poor souls to their ends. And yet he smiles. The sin of poverty is not that it drowns its sufferers in filth but that it conditions them to expect nothing more. Killer of Sheep understands this. It leaves you devastated. 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Nebraska Review

Directed by Alexander Payne
Released in 2013

You can’t stop him. The old man hoofs it up the highway shoulder, against the traffic flow. He studies his feet and ignores his white, battered hair, just as he has every day for a couple decades now. He’s not walking for exercise, nor does he look like he’s having a bit of fun. As we soon learn, he’s off to claim a million dollars. But he’s not a millionaire, just a dupe: He fell for one of those mail order sweepstakes. He can’t be that gullible, can he? He’s going senile, yeah, but still, what gives? What drives Woody Grant? Such are the deceptively simple questions in Nebraska, another plainspoken masterpiece directed by Alexander Payne.

It is difficult to summarize Nebraska because it is so easy. Not a whole lot happens. Woody (Bruce Dern) insists he won, but he’s not one to stay put and argue. Rather, he just leaves, by foot, trudging from Billings, Montana with full intent on reaching Nebraska, where the letter promises him money. Woody’s firecracker of a wife, Kate (June Squibb), pegs his misconception on old age and life-long alcoholism. Their son, David (SNL’s Will Forte), agrees, though for some reason he also agrees to humor his old man, firing up the Subaru for a two-man road trip to fetch the money he knows is not there. Perhaps David needs a change after losing his girlfriend, working in a listless electronics store and watching his older brother, Ross (Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk), climb the ranks to anchor the prestigious local Billings newscast. Maybe he just wants to get close to his father. Who knows.

These characters keep their motivations close to their chests. But don’t blame screenwriter Bob Nelson for doing a bad job. If anything, sing his praises. He has written one of the greatest scripts in years, the kind of story critics bemoan we never see in America anymore, to say nothing of Middle America. Again, how to describe? Well, Nelson wrote an … extremely unpretentious art film. Each scene breathes, letting characters live, drink beers, ignore their wives, look off into space, before carrying over, by virtue of classical Hollywood cause-and-effect, to the next scene. Yes, yes, Nebraska has a conflict, a climax, a three-act structure, all that jazz. There is order. But unlike less organic comedy-dramas, like this summer’s The Way Way Back (written by the Oscar-winning pair who collaborated with Payne on The Descendants, which had its forced moments, too), not one moment feels obligated to push the plot forward or, better yet, unearned. Nebraska unfolds like life, as we know it: with time, with memories, with unplanned hilarity.

Like any film of this sort set in the Midwest, like Fargo, The Straight Story or Payne’s own About Schmidt, we often laugh when the characters don’t. Nelson, Payne and we find the pauses in these people’s conversations funny, precisely because the characters don’t. There are laughs to be had in a world unafraid of taking things slow, allowing silence, ignoring “awkwardness.” Contrary to some critics’ conclusions that Payne (an Omaha native) looks down at Midwesterners, I find this film to be an appreciation of their lives … with some reservations. Two nephews of Woody’s turn out to be brainless, boring bullies, begging comparisons to Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. (The look on their faces when David corrects their epithet that Kia is not a “Jap” car but a Korean one is priceless.) The true, albeit minor, antagonist, is Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), who seeks to siphon some of Woody’s fake prize money in order to settle scores from decades prior. Everyone but Woody sees through Ed’s fake smile at once, particularly Kate, who takes on her enemies with simultaneously shocking and adorable profanity. If anything, Payne loves the release — the f-bomb, the punch. No matter where you live, B.S. is B.S., and it cannot stand.

June Squibb as Kate Grant
But these are good people, really. Despite his reputation for black comedy, Payne sees the good in humanity and struggles to do it justice. Shot in black-and-white by Phedon Papamichael and gifted a wonderful bluegrass score by Mark Orton, Nebraska evokes the deserted, timeless quality of the American pastoral. Those who live there must work to do so, and through work manifests greatness. We recognize that David can do so much more than hock speakers in a strip mall, and he recognizes it, too. Woody once flirted with legend — injured Korean War vet, young entrepreneur — before settling on the bottle and fooling around. Even with their personal failings, which are accurate representations of most of us, they live on intuition. David grimaces at Woody’s confession that he and Kate never talked about having kids or what marriage means to them. But then, in a beautiful scene, David watches his mother berate Woody, lying in a hospital bed (not a spoiler, for he’s a clumsy old man), before planting a big kiss on his forehead. Some things don’t need to be explained; they just are, eternally so.

That last line sums up Nebraska, for me at least. I could continue picking apart scenes or applauding Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Will Forte’s performances, all three of whom you can expect Oscar to notice. Yet there’s a quality to this film I don’t want to tarnish through too much scrutiny. It’s not its pathos or humor, though those are alive and well, but more its ease of empathy. I see myself in all of the characters — even the dummy nephews who brag about how fast they can haul it from Nebraska to Texas. These people are more alike than they are different, and they could all do better at this life thing. Nebraska welcomes our late-act attempts at redemption while acknowledging that we never realize them, at least in the way we expect. We better ourselves through the effort, fueled by delusions as we hike along the interstate.

Final Verdict:
5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.