Thursday, October 23, 2008

Time Capsule

I've had Dinah Washington's This Bitter Earth playing for some weeks now. I owe this current obsession to Charles Burnett's excellent Killer Of Sheep.

You know, the AFI's list of 100 great American films has rightly been called into suspicion by Jonathan Rosenbaum all these years. Lists of what supposedly constitutes great American films almost always get it wrong. But the Library Of Congress certainly got it right in 1990 when it declared Killer Of Sheep a national treasure, and made it one of the first 50 entered in the National Film Registry.

The National Society Of Film Critics later selected it as one of the 100 most essential films of all time. But let's not go there, because I still have a great distrust of lists in general. (And I especially hate books with titles like "1,000 Films You Must See Before You Die.")

It's unfortunate that one of the film's greatest strengths was also its own worst enemy. You can call Killer Of Sheep a "plotless film," but then, seeing what Burnett was trying to do with it, more capturing the essence of life in Watts in the 70s than telling a packaged story, you have to ask if a person's life actually has a plot. Of course not.

In trying to capture what life was like, as opposed to what life was about, in that particular area, in that particular time, about those particular residents, Burnett conveyed the inner poetry of each moment using the most emotionally stirring tool there is, which is music. And his choice of music is just impeccable.

One of the most emotionally impactful scenes in the film is when the protagonist and his wife, their relationship troubled, are dancing wistfully to This Bitter Earth, their silhouettes against a large window, the wife desperately trying to reach out to the husband. You could just feel the yearning and the heartache pouring right out of the screen.

But it was the rights to the music used that kept the film out of circulation for a long time. Back then, Burnett and his then-little seen film must have been quite the urban legend. I mean,this was his thesis film, and already it is quite something so solidly original in its vision, with such a distinct voice and an uncanny understanding of how to translate the everyday into a poetic engagement.

The film starts off with extreme close-ups. You don't quite know where you are, but from what's going on and what is being said (a father scolding his son), you know it's a domestic setting. In almost all the interior scenes, you're never quite sure of the surroundings, because Burnett uses close-ups or focuses on the characters and the characters alone. What surrounds them seems inconsequential, but Burnett seems to suggest that the interiors embody the personalities of their inhabitants, and vice-versa. Only in the larger locale, the exteriors, do we really get to see the people framed by a distinct sense of place. And it's that, I think, which is the larger frame that "controls" the whole "plotless" film.

While Burnett was certainly ahead of his time, and Senses Of Cinema rightfully called him a"one-man African-American New Wave" (actually, I think "one-man American New Wave" would be more appropriate), most (local) filmmakers today seem to think plotless films where nothing much happens amount to something if they just "show." That would actually be "pointless films." Big difference.

Even if nothing much happens on screen, something is always happening within the characters. Burnett perfectly captures the emotions going through a blender, in the faces of his characters, their gait, their speech. It is a story of faces as much as it is a story of places.

That's also why I felt inclined to reprimand my friend Mr Nutshell for his review, where he basically said the film didn't work for him because it "showed too much of the drudgery routine in the life of the poor" where "nothing much happens." He said that perhaps he didn't get the "socio-economic climate of the time" or the "many subtexts that the movie presented."

My response to him was, this is a film about life, not subtexts and not anything socio-economic in particular. And if it didn't work for you, then maybe you've been going through life in a coma. Harsh maybe, but Killer Of Sheep certainly deserves more than just a simple brush-off, and it's definitely my greatest discovery of the year. Never too late.

Killer Of Sheep official site

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