In 1990, the Library of Congress announced its second annual line-up of American movie classics for enshrinement on the National Film Registry. Many of the choices were well-known and influential treasures of the American film culture: “The Great Train Robbery,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Duck Soup,” “Fantasia,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “All About Eve,” “A Woman Under the Influence” and “Raging Bull” were among the mix.
But for many people, including plugged-in cineastes, there was a wild card choice among the 25 films on the list: Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep.” This 1977 film was never theatrically released and was never seen outside of a few festival screenings. Yet amazingly, this $10,000 production, originally conceived as a student thesis project and shot in black-and-white 16mm with a non-professional cast on the streets of Watts, was judged as an equal to the likes of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “All About Eve.”
Here we are in 2004 and, incredibly, “Killer of Sheep” is still unavailable for wide commercial presentation. Ironically, the film is poised for official release, but that’s been held up for a few years.
“Killer of Sheep” focuses on the world of a meat-packer working in a Watts slaughterhouse. His inability or refusal to rise above his socio-economic station creates increasing stress within his family and circle of friends. When he is laid off, he receives a lucrative invitation to work with a couple of local hitmen. The comparison between the animal slaughter work and the repugnant petty crime activity is more than obvious, and he struggles to keep his dignity in the face of economic hardship.
Burnett shot the film in a bare-bones neo-realist style which makes the film seem like a documentary of lower-class black life in the mid-1970s. Cinema scholar Jaime N. Christley, editor of Film Written Magazine, provided the most cogent description of “Killer of Sheep” to date: “This is slice-of-life lower-class Americana at its most extreme, prehistoric to the hypnotic, Malickish stylization David Gordon Green would bring to ‘George Washington.’ In a way, one could invoke Cassavetes but Burnett neither reaches for nor makes motions towards the reach for JC’s Cinema-Hysteria; rather, many scenes, especially in the second half, straddle the gap (if there is one) between the novelistic, the documentary aesthetic, and the lyrical.”
“Killer of Sheep” attracted raves when Burnett finally began to show the film in 1981, four years after its completion. It won the FIPRESCI Award at the Berlin Film Festival and received a rapturous reception at Toronto the same year. The film didn’t get to Sundance until 2000, but received an award when it did turn up. Burnett’s subsequent film work was prolific, if not commercially successful (most notably “To Sleep with Anger” in 1990 and “The Glass Shield” in 1995), and various retrospectives of his work inevitably point to “Killer of Sheep” as his masterwork.
But despite the praise and honors, “Killer of Sheep” never found its way into theatrical release. It has always been and continues to play in non-theatrical presentations, but as modern classics go it never got the distribution it deserved. The film was pegged for a long-overdue theatrical and home video release from Milestone Film & Video, the acclaimed indie distributor celebrated for rescuing lost films (including Pasolini’s “Mamma Roma”). Milestone acquired the rights to the film a few years ago after Burnett collaborated with the UCLA Film and Television Archive to restore the film. “Killer of Sheep” was blown up to 35mm and was provided with a significantly improved sound and picture quality. But to date, the restored version of the film was never released.
So what went wrong? It seemed that Burnett made ample and creative use of popular music from distant decades on his soundtrack; Jaime N. Christley marveled at “his sad soft use of old-timey radio love songs, or Gershwin in the slaughterhouse.” Unfortunately, those songs come with hefty music clearance fees–especially for home entertainment release (which is something Burnett obviously never considered back in the 1970s when he shot the film). Milestone, to its surprise, found the level of music clearance payments to be much higher than it anticipated. At this writing, the distributor is still in negotiation to get this issue resolved so the film can be properly released.
Until the matter is resolved, “Killer of Sheep” can only be seen in home viewing on bootleg video. Many bootleg providers offer this title and their videos come from the pre-restored 16mm version, and one can easily assume these are woefully inferior when compared to the restored edition which is stuck on the shelf. As much as we love bootlegs, in this case we’re actually rooting for the film to get out of the Bootleg Files and into proper release. After all of these years, “Killer of Sheep” deserves to be widely seen and appreciated.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on April 9, 2004 in Features by Phil Hall
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