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Charles Burnett
by Chris Dashiell

This year the Arizona Film Festival honored independent filmmaker Charles Burnett. Burnett is a Mississipi-born African American, 56 years old, who has consistently sought to portray the lives and address the concerns of black people in his films. Despite much critical esteem and many awards, he hasn't achieved a popular success, and his films have generally received lackluster marketing and distribution from Hollywood. In 23 years he has directed just six movies. Killer of Sheep ('77) was his graduate piece for UCLA Film School. It was followed by My Brother's Wedding ('83), which I haven't seen, then the critically acclaimed To Sleep With Anger ('90), starring Danny Glover, which I consider one of the best films of the 90s. In '95 came the underrated police drama The Glass Shield, about a black cop who stumbles on a conspiracy in the LAPD - a story idea which seems prescient today. In '98 he directed Nightjohn, a movie for television about a slave who risks his life to teach other slaves how to read. This year sees his new film The Annihilation of Fish, which was shown at the festival along with a rare screening of his very first picture.

KILLER OF SHEEP is something of a miracle - a student film that comes close to greatness. It is a 16 millimeter black-and-white movie which was made for around ten thousand dollars. For his nonprofessional cast Burnett used friends and people that he knew in his Watts neighborhood. The result is a portrait of life in the ghetto remarkable for its realism. It was selected for the National Film Registry in 1990. The raw, seemingly improvisatory style of the film is obviously influenced by Cassavetes. Thrust into a series of scenes featuring many different characters, the audience must pay close attention until it becomes clear what the relationships are. Gradually a story emerges concerning a slaughterhouse worker named Stan (Henry Gale Sanders), married with two kids, who is dissatisfied with his life but is unclear as to why. His wife wants more intimacy, but he closes himself off to her. Friends try to get him involved in some shady dealings - he rebuffs them. His everyday life is filled with setbacks and frustrations.

Even this cursory outline of Killer of Sheep makes it seem as if is has a linear story-line, but it's really more like a series of fly-on-the-wall snapshots of neighborhood life. The effect is like a tapestry or mosaic which reproduces the day-to-day experience of that world. Most effective are the sequences involving children - amazingly natural depictions of kids playing in the street, interacting with each other, entertaining themselves through the slightest means, always present as a sort of counterpoint to the adults who are usually squabbling about something. The film is unsparing of its characters. No attempt is made to soften the pettiness, ignorance, and even viciousness that manifests in the lives of the poor. Neither is there a sense of being preached at. The film's tone is ironic, indeed sometimes very funny. The visual style is supremely objective - in fact this is so much the case that the recurring scenes of sheep in the slaughterhouse (the title metaphor) seem out of place and symbolically redundant. The truth speaks well enough for itself.

After the screening, the director appeared, to a standing ovation, and then answered questions from the audience. Burnett is an extremely soft-spoken, youthful looking man. He seemed shy, a bit abashed to be on stage. He talked about how it was such a different environment for filmmaking back then - no Sundance, very few avenues for independent directors to get a distributor. Despite the film's spontaneous feel, he in fact had scripted everything we had just seen. He believes, however, in allowing actors to contribute ideas to a film. The best director is a good listener. He incorporates ideas from everyone he works with, steering with a steady but not rigidly controlling hand. Making a Hollywood movie is a different affair than making something like Killer of Sheep. It has its own rules and is valid in its own right. The main difference is that in calculating the need to reach the maximum number of customers, one has to tailor the work in certain ways. For the most part he has chosen not to do that, so he has remained independent. He talked about how his experiences in the church when growing up has influenced his work - his movies tend to raise spiritual and religious questions. He seemed reticent and even somewhat inarticulate when it came to explaining the overall themes and concerns of his work. It would appear that, like many artists, he expresses himself mainly through his work and not so much through describing it.

The house was packed that evening for Burnett's current film, THE ANNIHILATION OF FISH. It is a comedy/romance starring James Earl Jones as a Jamaican named Fish who believes that he is being pursued by a demon. From time to time he must wrestle this demon in order to stay alive. After being released from a mental hospital, he meets a strange woman named Poinsettia (Lynn Redgrave), who has delusions that she is the lover of Puccini. After first not getting along, they grow fond of each other, and Fish even asks her to be the referee in his wrestling bouts.

In a perfect world, our honoree's latest film would be a masterpiece. To my surprise, I found it to be way beneath his usual standard. The screenplay is by Anthony Winkler, and sometimes the wit has a certain sparkle. More often, though, the script just piles the whimsy on too heavily. The characters are two-dimensional mouthpieces for the author's homespun humor. The bright spot is Jones, who portrays the title character with such conviction that I was won over. Redgrave, however, hams it up so badly that I found her at times practically unbearable to watch. Her take on the lonely old woman is not much more than a bundle of mannerisms; her style has the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Then there's Margot Kidder, almost unrecognizable, playing the couple's lovable dotty old landlady. Well, I'm glad to see her back at work, but I'm sorry to report that her mugging is even worse than Redgrave's. The direction is fluid, skillful, but not particularly memorable. I presume Burnett made the decision, given the nature of the material, to go with a broader acting style. This sort of "heartwarming" story, carefully pointing out its lessons to us, with its precious sentimentality and its naivete about mental illness, is not at all to my taste. But the audience ate it up. Everyone in the theater seemed to be laughing uproariously throughout the picture, and when Burnett appeared again after the film, along with his producer, people were ecstatic, praising the movie as if it was the greatest thing in years. This put me in the curious position of being in a negative minority against a film by someone I'd always admired, and often tried to persuade friends to appreciate.

My theory is that Burnett is really trying for a commercial success this time. So he did a film that is much more mainstream, more obvious, less nuanced, than anything he's done before. And who can blame him? A success would help finance further work for him. So, strangely, I find myself wishing the film well even though I can't give it a good review! It's by far Charles Burnett's worst picture - cloying, overwrought, simplistic. So maybe it will make money. I don't know. I do know one thing. If I were Burnett, I'd at least change that crummy title.

Chris Dashiell




CineScene, 2000