Killer of Sheep (1978) — The Neorealist Equivalent of Conan’s Hat
One of the most enduring creation myths to emerge from late-20th Century popular culture is that of Los Angeles as a city built on bones. Robert Towne and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown tells of an incestuous white man who engineers water shortages in order to force poor farmers off their land and build new homes for middle-class families. Set a number of years later, James Ellroy’s LA Quartet provides Capital with an even more corrupt figurehead in the person of Dudley Smith, an OSS spymaster turned anti-Communist and White supremacist who uses his institutional power as chief of detectives to corner the local drugs trade in an effort to keep the city’s non-White population under control and away from the classy White neighbourhoods that Chinatown’s Noah Cross famously described as “the future”.
While American popular culture is often willing to recognise the racial character of the oppressive forces it seeks to catalogue, its viewpoint is invariably that of the White liberal onlooker rather than that of the explicitly oppressed. This is particularly evident in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a polymorphously problematic remake of Chinatown where California’s marginalised population is represented by a ghetto filled with a diverse population of cartoon characters who eke out a living on the margins of Hollywood and eagerly distance themselves from a villainous Judge Doom who acquired considerable power and money by passing himself off as a respectable White man. The film ends with the ‘toons bickering about whether Doom was actually a duck, a dog or a mouse because obviously no White man would ever stoop so low as to use institutional power to brutalise and immiserate the poor and dispossessed. Even Chinatown’s most famous line resonates with the privilege of being born White in a White supremacist state; Jake may be able to ‘forget it’ because it is Chinatown but the actual residents of Chinatown are forced to live with ‘it’ every day of their lives.
As Thom Andersen suggests in his peerless video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, the American film industry has long proven reluctant to engage with the city of Los Angeles on its own terms and turn the camera over to the real victims of its emerging creation myth. Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep is one of only a few films to consider what it means to live in the town of Noah Cross and Dudley Smith.
The film revolves around Stan (Henry G. Sanders), his wife (Kaycee Moore) and their two children. Like seemingly all of his friends and neighbours, Stan is an African American lured out of the South by promises of work and better living conditions. Living in a slum and working a job he visibly hates, Stan has slumped into a deep depression that leaves him alienated from his wife and incapable of anything other than the most basic acts of self-preservation.
The most striking thing about Killer of Sheep is that while it may be set in the Watts neighbourhood twelve years after the infamous race riots of August 1965, it could just as easily have been set thirty years earlier in a completely different city. The residents of Watts inhabit slums so poor and neglected that they seem positively post-apocalyptic by the standards of most Hollywood films. Stan’s children spend their days running between decaying buildings and vacant lots, moving from scheme to scheme and scrap to scrap in a way that recalls the aimless drifting that has been forced upon their parents by a racist, capitalist system. Burnett makes the comparison between the lives of the two generations quite explicit in the way that Stan’s attempts to cobble together enough money to fix up an abandoned car is juxtaposed with images of a bicycle that is used and re-used by different kids at different points in the film.
Long on evocative imagery and short on plot, Killer of Sheep combines the social conscience of Italian Neorealism with the spiritual desolation of French poetic realism to produce a film that captures the lives of ordinary working class African Americans in a procession of moods and images that tell us far more than a conventionally-structured story ever could.
Particularly interesting is the way that we never see Stan either going to or coming from work. Instead, he seems to be perpetually at home while his professional life is captured in images of a slaughterhouse where he is often seen smiling and joking with his colleagues as dead sheep twitch away on metal hooks. The smooth, dreamlike mechanism of the slaughterhouse not only invites us to compare its structured brutality to the neglect of the Watts neighbourhood but also to treat those images as a source of psychological trauma that impacts Stan in ways that he can barely bring himself to acknowledge. We never see Stan going to or coming from work because Stan himself is trying to erect a barrier between his home life and the horrible things he does in order to make that home life possible.
Another striking detail about Killer of Sheep is the complete absence of police or other authority figures. The police are occasionally mentioned but they never appear and the closest the film comes to a boss is the white owner of the local liquor store whose attraction to Stan is cast in a really chilling light when she offers him a job on the understanding that her existing African American lover/employee would be the one keeping the register and running the risk of getting shot. The old boy is visibly shocked by his boss/lover’s callousness but you cannot help but wonder whether a similar offer might not have been made to him in front of his predecessor. Suspecting that the woman intends him as nothing more than fresh meat, Stan politely declines… better to be the slaughterman than the slaughtered.
Burnett has spoken about how he originally intended Killer of Sheep as the first part of a trilogy of films about a man who tries to find a meaningful mode of existence under capitalist white supremacy only to wind up making his peace with the system and the need to keep working in order to survive. According to the commentary track included on the excellent BFI release of this film, Burnett was forced to abandon his plans for a trilogy while shooting Killer of Sheep and so he compressed Stan’s character arc down to the point where it fit into a single film and this, somewhat unexpectedly, makes for a far more powerful vision.
Killer of Sheep opens with Stan and a neighbour trying to fix up an old car and when they eventually do, they all squeeze into it in order to go for a drive. Dressed and made-up, Stan’s wife is simply happy to watch the countryside go by while one of Stan’s friends talks animatedly about the need to get to a local racetrack in order to watch a race upon which he has wagered. Forced to condense his otherwise dream-like narrative, Burnett allows the car to spring almost from nowhere and the animated discussions about where they are going to go and what they are going to do makes it clear that the car is a repository for all of their incompatible and undefined hopes. Having sprung from virtually nowhere, the freedom and optimism represented by the car is almost immediately snatched away as the car gets a flat, forcing the group to drive home on the rim. The fascinating thing about this turn of events is that it somehow manages to shake Stan out of his lethargy and allow him a moment of happiness despite the fact that the damage sustained during the drive home will inevitably force the group into another cycle of saving and scavenging in order to repair the car and go for another drive.
I have long maintained that one of the most perfect cinematic representations of life under capitalism is that contained in John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian. Early in the film, Conan and his friends sneak into a temple, battle a snake demon and escape with a sack of loot. Delighted just to have survived, the group buy themselves some improbable hats and go out on the lash only to wake up hung-over with neither money nor hats, thereby requiring them to go in search of another temple to plunder. Stan’s car is effectively the neorealist equivalent of Conan’s hat: Stan works for weeks at a soul-destroying job in order to scrape together enough money to take his family out for a day trip. The day trip complete, he winds up exactly where he started… scrabbling for money to help fix up the car. While this cycle certainly serves to expose the unjust and arbitrary nature of life under capitalism, it also affords its victims a fleeting moment of happiness that validates their suffering and encourages them to repeat the cycle over and over again.
There’s an interesting scene early in the film when a couple of Stan’s old friends swing by his house in an effort to enlist him in one of their criminal schemes. Stan is not impressed but it is his wife who actually makes a stand and tells them to piss off and leave him alone. This scene works beautifully as while it acknowledges that crime might well be a way out of the cycle of poverty and misery in which Stan finds himself, it is also saying that being able to take the kinds of risks associated with a life of crime is the privilege of a single man. The system will not allow Stan to improve his lot in life but stepping outside the system puts at risk his capacity to maintain what he has. Unable to work within the system or rebel against it, Stan is forced to endure and Killer of Sheep is a film about the simple heroism required to find the courage to do so.