In John Ford’s great cinematic rendering of The Grapes of Wrath, the old truck that carries the Joad family from Oklahoma to Southern California becomes more more than a truck. Overloaded, off balance, constantly breaking down or running out of gas, the Joadmobile is one of the iconic characters in film history, the embodiment of the determination of the American working class to survive the Great Depression. In what is the film’s, and perhaps even John Ford’s climatic scene, the Joad family some how, some way makes it across the desert from Nevada to Southern California, a journey as perilous as the one their forebears made 75 years before, the old truck, part motor vehicle, part covered wagon, bridging the gap that separated New Deal America from the pioneers.
In Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” we have a very different kind of family, and a very different confrontation with poverty. Killer of Sheep may not be as well known as Grapes of Wrath. Filmed through the 1970s when Burnett was a film student at UCLA, its release was delayed for years because of copyright issues with the soundtrack. After its restoration in 2007, however, it was chosen by the National Society of Film Critics as one of the 100 Essential Films. In 1990, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Stan, the film’s Tom Joad, is a young black man who lives with his wife and two kids in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles of the 1960s. Poverty for Stan and his family isn’t the life threatening poverty of the Joad family. There’s no danger they’re going to starve to death, break down in the middle of the night in the desert, or get beaten to death by strikebreakers. Everybody in Charles Burnett’s Watts has enough to eat and a roof over their heads. Poverty in Killer of Sheep pretty much comes down to “lacking pocket money,” but, if the Grapes of Wrath is about purgatory, Killer of Sheep is set in hell. Burnett’s Watts may be geographically located in Los Angeles, which was, last time I checked, a major American city, but it seems like a lost village of the damned. Time doesn’t exist. Place doesn’t exist. There is no government, no police, no postal service. There are no newspapers or magazines, and the only time we see a television set is when it’s being stolen. Stan has a job in a slaughterhouse, thus the title “Killer of Sheep,” but his neighbors all seem to be shiftless layabouts or petty thieves. There is quite literally no way out.
If the Joad family make it across the desert against all the odds, Stan and his neighbors fail at the simplest of tasks. In a particularly painful scene, for example, Stan and one of his friends buy a used engine from a neighbor to transplant into a non-working motor vehicle, a possible way out. They negotiate the price. They pick up the engine and carry down two flights of stairs. After a long, harrowing struggle, they manage to get the it out to the street and their pickup truck, which is parked on a steep incline. They’ve made it, success, but no. Stan’s friend has injured his hand. They don’t have enough strength left to push the engine all the way up into the pickup truck’s bed. They leave the hard won engine hanging right on the edge. We wince because we know what’s coming. Stan gets behind the wheel of the car, and the engine crashes down onto the street as they lurch forward. They crack the block and waste what’s probably close to a week’s salary at the slaughterhouse. A later attempt at escape, a day trip to a local race track fails just as miserably. Just like the Joad family, Stan and his friends overload their car and blow out one of the tires, but, unlike the Joad family, they lack the ingenuity and the determination to continue on their way. Instead, they just turn around and ride the rim back to Watts. We can only imagine the shape the car was in when they got back home.
Whether or not you enjoy Killer of Sheep probably depends on whether or not you see Stan’s failure to escape, or even try to escape from the hell of his Watts neighborhood as a strength or a weakness. Film critics love Killer of Sheep. They see the Burnett’s refusal to plot out an overarching, central narrative as part of an honest attempt to recreate the conditions of urban poverty in the 1960s.
Killer of Sheep is certainly an effective expression of despair. The hangdog expressions of the men, the hostility of the women, the vicious aimless quality of the children testify to what life was like in one of those ghettos. But I’m not a film critic. Like John Ford’s audience in the 1930s, I don’t watch a film to recreate conditions I know in real life. I don’t want a film about poverty to be governed by a poverty of the imagination. The fact that Charles Burnett has managed, with great skill, to recreate a small corner of hell may testify to his skill as a film maker, but it doesn’t mean I want to spend 80 minutes of my time watching it. I know what poverty is like. I know what bedbugs are like. Does that mean I want to see a film that reminds me what it’s like to sleep on a mattress infested with bedbugs? In fact, far from bringing us closer to the reality of the poor, the lack of a plot brings us into the world of bourgeois indulgence, almost certainly not Burnett’s intention, but probably a hint about why it’s been so lavishly praised by the critics.
For the Joad family, survival is the overarching narrative. They don’t have the luxury of aimless meandering. That would be for the rich, the film critics who think Killer of Sheep is a “slice of life.” For the Joad family, it’s make it to California or die. They keep that truck working because they have to. Stan, by contrast, for all his failure at buying a spare engine or getting to the race track, somehow manages to get to work everyday. How does he do it? Does he take the bus? Does he car pool? Does he ride a bike? It’s Los Angeles, after all, not New York. There’s no subway and commutes in southern California often involve vast distances. But we’re never told. It’s an interesting story. It’s the story the film calls for, but Burnett never addresses it. He denies us the pleasure of any narrative arc, even if that narrative arc is about getting to work every day, something the poor, in real life, do with great skill and ingenuity.
Indeed, the weakest scenes in Killer of Sheep involve Stan’s job at the slaughterhouse. Unlike most of the film critics who have put Burnett’s film up on a pedestal, I actually know what the inside of a slaughterhouse looks like, having worked in fish canneries in the 1990s. In spite of one striking image of sheep after they’ve been slaughtered, these scenes fall flat. They capture none of the smell, the noise, the chaos, or the violence of a slaughterhouse. For that, go to Jennifer Lawrence’s squirrel skinning scene in Winter’s Bone,where she viscerally recoils from the blood and guts. The abattoir in Killer of sheep is arty and contrived, a clumsy attempt at symbolism. Yeah, we get it. Stan and his friends, the working class as a whole, are just like sheep, aimlessly milling about, waiting to be slaughtered. But if you’re going to film a scene in a slaughterhouse, it had better be messier. Slaughterhouses aren’t bloodless.
Perhaps it’s best to look at Killer of Sheep exactly as what it is, a brilliant student film made by a gifted cinematographer. In a purely visual sense, Killer of Sheep is a triumph. Burnett may not know how to write a story. His actors, non actors, may seem wooden and clumsy, and the sound maybe incompetently mixed, but as a still photographer he has to rank with some of the greatest. The lighting is perfect, not just in one scene, but in every scene. The framing, while simple, is also deceptively simple. Every scene, every moment, has the palpable feel of reality. I suspect that if a professor of photography at Pratt Institute diagrammed Killer of Sheep scene by scene, he’d find that every frame is perfectly composed. Killer of Sheep looks as good as any black and white film by Jim Jarmusch. Frame by frame, the black and white photography in Killer of Sheep is as beautiful as the black and white photography in John Ford’s most beautiful film, “My Darling Clementine.” Killer of Sheep looks as good as the collected works of Henri Cartier Bresson.
It’s just too bad that whatever Burnett’s motivations, Killer of Sheep never quite rises above the level of poverty porn.