Killer of Sheep
“The children in the playground
The people that I see
All races, all religions
That’s America to me”
-Lewis Allan and Earl Robinson “The House I Live In”
Going to the movies alone is an act that harkens back to de Tocqueville’s idea of American individualism. Everyone is in the theater for the sole purpose of escape, whether we empathize with the antihero, root for the villain or succumb to the pathos of laughter or tears, gathered in a single space, each one of us with our own memories and opinions of what we just witnessed when it’s over. I sat in an auditorium full of film students and faculty at the New School University, the only person alone to watch Killer of Sheep on a big screen, the feelings of self-consciousness forgotten as I watched the opening scene in which a pre-adolescent is scolded for not protecting his younger brother: “You are not a child anymore. You soon will be a goddamn man. Start learning what life is about now, son.”
Charles Burnett, one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers alive today, studied at UCLA, birthplace of the film movement of realism told from the black American perspective that refuted the exploitation that filled the marquees at the time. The movement was America’s answer to Italy’s neo-realism, post-Rebellion Watts (i.e. a decade after early August 1965) replacing post-World War II Rome in the case of Killer. Burnett’s series of vignettes filmed in black and white and set to a catalog of popular American music spanning nearly a century focuses on Stan, a slaughterhouse worker and the peripheral characters that he and his family interact with on a regular basis. Children spin tops and play King of the Mountain and rock fights in vacant construction sites while the adults roll dice and play dominoes and cards on kitchen tables. The best-known scene is one in which Stan and a friend pool their money together to buy an engine for a car they hope to fix and sell, only for a poor decision to undo all of their work in one of the most-cringe worthy moments that is still difficult for me to watch this day.
The Quiet One
James Agee and photographer Helen Levitt first collaborated on the silent film In the Street, a non-narrative short about life on the streets of East Harlem filmed in the mid-1940s. The Quiet One, released in 1948, takes this several steps further, from children on sidewalks to the story told in narration (written by Agee) of one child, Donald Peters, a boy neglected or else abused by family who goes off to the Wiltwyck School for Boys in upstate New York, which by the time of filming was being kept afloat by donations solicited by Eleanor Roosevelt.
The film, more of a docudrama than a documentary, was an anomaly for its time simply for its focus on a black child in a poor neighborhood. It succeeds in raising the question of the role of environment in shaping the individual psyche of a child as well as the communal psyche of peoples. The scene in which Peters is beaten by his grandmother simply for existing is so starkly filmed by Levitt, so carefully worded by Agee (“The same old hopeless confusion and misunderstanding. Rage and pain and fear and hatred…and the sick quiet that follows violence. Duty without love. And peacemaking that fails.”) that it lingers in the mind long after the movie’s end.
Note: Waltwyck was closed in 1981 due to lack of funding.
From the opening sequence of a club that DMX and Nas rob to an all white mansion in Jamaica Estates, Queens to the streets of Omaha, Nebraska, Hype Williams’ feature film debut is an amalgamation of everything he learned directing music videos for the top hip hop acts of the mid to late 1990s, an era rife with the excesses of the Dot Com Boom and the airwave domination of the East Coast. Aside from the electric performance of DMX in a role that seemed written with him in mind, the movie stands alongside the works of Raymond Chandler in making me conscious of the importance of atmosphere when constructing a story through Williams’ signatures of blacklight, single color backgrounds, slow motion and sharp camera cuts. The film is also personally notable for one of DMX’s best quotes, “Fuck a book! Shorty can’t eat no books!” a line that serves as a regular reminder that even though freedom of expression is a right, writing literature is a privileged act in itself.
Bonnie and Clyde
Despite what the movie may have you believe, Clyde Barrow wasn’t impotent or gay. Rather, this was borrowed from John Toland’s novel The Dillinger Days by none other than Warren Beatty himself to play against the actor’s reputation as a Lothario, or what we would nowadays consider a sex addict. Despite this inaccuracy among others, Arthur Penn’s interpretation is made to be deconstructed and discussed, particularly for its depiction of violence considered quite graphic for 1967’s audience who watched the nightly news reports and footage of killings in Vietnam. If the entire film was the final closeup of Faye Dunaway’s sexy, knowing smile and the barrage of bullets that immediately follows I would watch it on a loop.
The algorithm in both my Facebook and Twitter timelines has lately been pushing a “90’s Fest” musical festival to be held in Williamsburg (advertised as ‘The Heart of Brooklyn’) in September featuring Coolio, Smash Mouth and Blind Melon (minus, of course Shannon Hoon.) I bring this up because among the themes of one of my favorite films Citizen Kane, is the saccharine sweetness of nostalgia and our relation to the passage of time and how we choose to remember it. Kane, a man who did not lift himself up by his bootstraps, has everything but what he really wants, only to essentially die slowly of a broken heart, clutching bric-a-brac that is only reminiscent of a picturesque Colorado childhood cut short so long ago by forces that he could not control. As he tells a reporter in search of the meaning of “Rosebud” Kane’s oldest friend Jebedia Leland sums it up: “That’s one of the greatest curses ever inflicted on the human race: memory.”
Eric Nelson is a prose writer and critic living in Queens, New York. His work has appeared in Tin House magazine, The Rumpus, Vol 1 Brooklyn and elsewhere. He currently reviews films and books for The Fanzine.