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.
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
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.