Killer of Sheep
R0 - America - Milestone Films / New Yorker Video
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak/Cameron Murray (22nd December 2007).
The Film

"Killer of Sheep" was made as Charles Burnett's UCLA film thesis piece in 1977, and while it has taken almost thirty years for its commercial release very little of the films impact has been lost, even if some of the relevance has been. The picture has been restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and while at times you can see and hear some inconsistencies in it they are not so jarring as to remove you from the viewing experience. There have been plenty of accolades thrown at the feet of "Killer of Sheep" (it was chosen for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and named as one of the 100 Essential Films by the National Society of Film Critics) and I believe that they are deserved as this film has a resonance that lingers far after the credits roll. One of the beauties of this film is that it is a fly-on-the-wall piece and at times has almost a documentary feel to it, it plays with the three act regiment and at the beginning you feel as if you have come in half way through the movie and all the relationships have been established but through some impressive storytelling you are quickly drawn in to the workings and intricacies of the world that the main character, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), resides within.
The world that Stan resides in is the community of Watts, Los Angeles and it is his story and that of his family. Stan suffers from insomnia and for lack of a better term, depression. Stan strikes you as a strong man who is determined to do right by his family and his community. He lives above the poverty line but not far enough for it not to be a very real threat. It seems that from this fact, Stan draws some of his pride (Being above the poverty line) but also is the cause of his bleakness (having the poverty line still a threat). Discussing his melancholy with a friend at one point he is asked why he doesn't kill himself; his answer is selfless but not committed. But this film is not a disconsolate look at life within this community, it shows Stan and his family's relationship within the community, the people who make it their home and the pleasures that Stan takes from the simple and sweet moments that everybody can appreciate.

The style as mentioned earlier is somewhere between fly-on-the-wall and documentary which compliments the feel of the film perfectly. While at times there are a few cuts that jar and some of the dialogue scenes are shot in a somewhat generic fashion (I do not mean this in a derogatory fashion, merely as an observation) it is how he has shot the exteriors and sequences of the children playing in construction sites and in the rail yards that will truly take your breath away. Often when this film is discussed they compare it to poetry and the sequences truly live up to this comparison.

I highly recommend this film to anyone who loves films, and would try and impress upon others the beauty and mastery that Burnett has for portraying his subject matter. This is a story that will touch you in a way that few can and dares to challenge a few traditions within the film community that deserve to be so.

Video

Presented in the original theatrical ratio of 1.33:1, this transfer has been restored, it appears as though the original print was in a considerably bad shape even though it was housed at the UCLA film lab, shot on 16 mm film and being a no-budget indie film made 30 years ago don't go in expecting a meticulously clean and sharp transfer. The black and white image features a lot of specks and dirt, grain is quite heavy at times especially amid the black levels and the overall image is on the soft side. Detail is not always clear in some shots but this is a student film after all. These flaws can mostly be forgiven due to the nature of the film and especially its film's tone and style. But, the dirt can sometimes be a distraction but not jarring.

Audio

A single English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is included, the film's audio is not the best and there are some inherent flaws of the 30-year-old track which has been restored like the image, mild hiss can sometimes be heard and I notice a drop out or two, lasting a fraction of a second but still noticeable. Dialogue is presented well but sometimes the levels are not the best. These problems are expected and I doubt we'll ever get anything better than this, so it'll do.

There are no optional subtitles available on this release.

Extras

Milestone has released this set as a 2-disc set which features some extras such as an audio commentary, a series of short films, a featurette, a theatrical trailer plus another bonus film from the director on the second disc. Below is a closer look at these supplements broken down per disc.

DISC ONE:

First up we've got a feature-length audio commentary by director Charles Burnett and program director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center Richard Peña. Peña acts as an interviewer in this track as he questions Burnett about various topics regarding the film. Topics such as the restoration to the title of the film and including such things as what the film is about and the meaning behind it, on capturing the era, tone and also capturing a sense of community. He comments on the UCLA film program and how he got the feel for what he wanted to do. Other areas of conversation include his directing the film and the style while also addressing the impact of the film. The track is an informative track worth listening to, although Peña helps move it along, he occasionally interrupts Burnett and there are some silent gaps, but not that many.

Next up are a collection of 3 short films by Brunett and include:

- "Several Friends" from 1969 runs for 22 minutes 1 seconds, this is a slice of life following some friends in the neighborhood, this style of film is similar to how "Killer of Sheep" was made.
- "The Horse" from 1973 runs for 13 minutes 50 seconds, this film is slow mood-piece about a horse.
- "When it Rains" from 1995 runs for 13 minutes 14 seconds, this film is about a friend helping out another with the rent.

Following that is a "Cast Reunion" featurette which runs for 5 minutes 58 seconds, before a screening of the newly restored print of the film, cast members Henry G. Sanders, Charles Bracy and Kaycee Moore get together and discuss the film and share some memories and experiences.

Rounding out the extras on this disc is the film's original theatrical trailer which runs for 2 minutes 9 seconds.

DISC TWO:

This second disc include a bonus film entitled "My Brother's Wedding" and includes two version the original 1983 Version which runs for 117 minutes 52 seconds and an all new 2007 Director's Cut which runs for a shorter 80 minutes 33 seconds. The original cut of the film was rushed and subsequently never released until now.

Another short film is included:

- "Quiet as Kept" from 2007 this film runs for 5 minutes 24 seconds and is a slice-of-life about a family living after hurricane Katrina.

The package also includes an 8-panel booklet which features:

- "Killer of Sheep: More than a Masterpiece" an essay by Armond White
- "Notes from Film Preservationist" by Ross Lipman

Packaging

This double disc set is packaged in a fold out cardboard case, similar to a digi-pack but the discs are housed in a slit inside the panels.

Overall

The Film: A Video: C Audio: C+ Extras: B Overall: B

 


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