The production history of Killer of Sheep is just as fascinating as it's content. Originally shot in 1973 as Burnett's senior thesis film at UCLA's film school, the film was not screened until 1977. The movie still remained mostly unseen by audiences for nearly thirty years, until a recent theatrical re-release and a DVD release. With a budget of only five thousand dollars, Burnett's film stands as a great example of early independent moviemaking, and a testament to the power of student filmmaking. No wonder Killer of Sheep made it's way onto NYU's Essential Screening List.
Burnett follows Stan, an African-American male in the Watts district of Los Angeles, who spends his days working at a slaughterhouse herding and killing sheep. At night, he can barely muster enough energy to talk to his wife and children.
The sheep in the slaughterhouse wallow aimlessly into oblivion, which is exactly what Stan is accomplishing, albeit at a slower rate. There is neither much joy nor pain in his life - just a monotonous routine that comes from his various duties as the patriarch of a lower-class family. Even his weekends are consumed by meaningless tasks. Stan is hardly the only character in Killer of Sheep slogging through his life, however - the neighborhood children are featured in a series of vignettes, in which they terrorize each other endlessly, and have street fights that are the product of boredom more than aggression.
On first viewing, the movie seems to be nothing more than a series of sequences devoted to showcasing the mundane. But, as Roger Ebert notes in his Great Movies review of the film, by presenting "ordinary life," Burnett explores "the quiet nobility of lives lived with values but without opportunities." Killer of Sheep is a film that will test the patience of an attention-deficit audience, but within these scattershot vignettes, Burnett hints at a greater truth about the routines that consume our lives.
Killer of Sheep is only one of forty-four films deemed as "Essential Viewing" for undergraduate film students. Luckily, there are many films on the list that I have already seen - Duck Soup (1933, Leo McCarey), The Wizard of Oz (1939, Victor Fleming), Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles), Sunset Boulevard (1950, Billy Wilder), Singin' In The Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly) and Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock) are all longtime favorites of mine. There are also a few recent films on the list that I was lucky enough to see upon their original theatrical release, including Fernando Meirelles' brilliant and harrowing City of God (2002) and Sylvain Chomet's surreal animated comedy The Triplets Of Belleville (2003).
But I continue to be amazed by every new film I watch from this incredible list. How, exactly, did it take me so long to finally watch The Last Waltz (1978) by Martin Scorsese? Scorsese, my favorite filmmaker, has fifteen movies on my 100 Greatest Films list, yet I hadn't found time to watch his riveting documentary on The Band until last month. At any rate, the soundtrack for The Last Waltz has quickly become the most-played album on my iTunes.
The Conformist (1971, Bernardo Bertolucci) is a masterpiece - Bertolucci's film addresses issues of self-betrayal and repression in a movie way ahead of its time. The beauty of the film remains intact after nearly forty years. Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch) is one of the best movies I've ever seen, and deserves (and will receive) a blog entry devoted entirely to a discussion of the film. A Woman Under the Influence (1974, John Cassavetes) is as powerful a domestic drama and deeply felt character study as I can remember.
Seven Samurai (1954, Akira Kurosawa) is a film that earns every minute of it's nearly three hour and thirty minute running time. Much is made of the film's considerable influence on every Hollywood picture released thereafter, but it's even more fascinating to observe the class warfare between the samurai and the village people. Kurosawa's depiction of the villagers as both heartbreakingly pathetic and diabolically deceitful informs our perception of the samurai as heroic, and, in some ways, lonely men with a death wish. And The Piano (1993, Jane Campion) is the sort of hauntingly beautiful love story that they just don't make anymore.
The next two films on my viewing schedule are The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Luis Bunuel) and Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman).