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Leila Pellegrino

Brooklyn Prospect Charter School, Junior

REVIEW | Killer of Sheep (1977) directed by Charles Burnett

Charles Burnett’s brilliance is exhibited by his ability to create something from nothing. He takes the plot-free life of a man named Stan and his family in Los Angeles and creates a masterpiece complete with some of the most interesting, touching scenes and editing I have ever seen. In his 1977 realist piece Killer of Sheep, Burnett is able to vividly portray the life of a slaughterhouse worker and his family through the use of several realism techniques. Burnett uses real-time editing of lengthy scenes, source music, and natural light to achieve such a realistic portrayal.

Burnett uses real-time editing throughout this film. One place that really stands out is a scene where Stan and his friend have purchased a car motor. They are then faced with the task of getting the motor down several flights of stairs to their truck below. Even though carrying a motor down many flights of stairs would be described by many as a boring, long, and hard thing to accomplish, Burnett films the entire process, which takes quite a while. He does this because in real life, carrying a motor down a flight of stairs does in fact take a while. We look at the experience of these two men in this scene as it really would happen in real life. Because of the way Burnett uses real-time editing of processes that generally take very long in everyday life, he exhibits a sense of realism in his film. Another clear example of this technique is the dancing scene, when the wife puts on a record and dances with her husband. Burnett films this scene very simply, from the beginning of the song to the end of the song in one shot; he never moves the camera, and we see the couple merely turning around in circles. The scene shows great realism because the director doesn’t rush to the end of the dance. He focuses on how long, repetitive, and simple it is. This is just like how it feels to dance with someone for a whole song in real life. Burnett used real-time editing to show exactly what happened in the dance, interesting or not, from the beginning to the end. Both of these scenes are effective ways of portraying realism, because they could have been shown using a shorter clip, but by showing the entire event, we really feel the passage of time that people feel every day in the real world.

Killer of Sheep, Angela Burnett (r.)

Burnett also uses diegetic sound to portray realism. One example of this is also during the dancing scene. The wife has a record playing beside the couple as they dance. This music is not an overlaying soundtrack; it is coming from a record player within the scene. The record starts at the beginning of the scene and ends at the end, all in one smooth, very beautiful song. People play records, instruments, and other things in the real world; we don’t have a soundtrack to our lives. This is why diegetic sound makes you feel as though you are there with the characters, listening to the same music they are listening to, in real life. Another example of this music technique is in the scene with the very young daughter sitting in a small room of the house playing a record. She is singing along, seeming to enjoy listening to the record. We hear a lot of the song that is playing, and watch as she hears the same and sings along to it. The realism, similar to the other example, comes from the character in the scene playing actual music for us, not hanging out in an atmosphere of background music that in real life we know we don’t have. The more we see characters in movies playing music for themselves to listen to the way we do in our own real lives, the more we get the sense of realism that Burnett so greatly portrays. These two examples of source music help us to feel present in the moment, which is important in the realist genre.

A third technique used by Burnett is natural lighting. It appears that he didn’t use any artificial lighting, but there are a few examples that really stand out. In the scene with the kids on the bicycle (who later fall off and run away), we see bright natural light of the sun on a dusty urban street. This makes us really feel the thrill of life that the kids are experiencing, and that we experience every day. On the other hand, scenes in the slaughterhouse are dark and dim. Not only does the natural sense of darkness portray the actual experiences of the workers in the slaughterhouse, it is also symbolizing death and the grim fact of this part of life. Both these examples make the audience feel as if they are experiencing the same emotional effect of different kinds of lighting in the movie that they also feel in real life, and that equivalency is a crucial point in realism filmmaking.

What makes Burnett’s Killer of Sheep so amazing is his courage to put into his films what other directors would deem unimportant. The interesting thing is, most of life is the unimportant passage of time, and quite boring. These parts of life are seen to most as meaningless and bland, but to Burnett it is much more. Burnett looks at the ordinary events and details of life and ends up with the real world. He adds to this piece many time-consuming processes which, filmed in real time, convey a sort of time passing. He uses source music in which characters put on their own music in multiple scenes. This conveys an action that people do everyday, not to mention something I have touched on quite a bit—life does not have a soundtrack. He also uses beautiful natural lighting to create the feel of the sun and of the darkness that we feel every day.

I have been impacted by this use of realism because all my life I have been watching films as a way to escape reality for an hour and a half, and to live in a world that isn’t mine, or anything like mine. Watching this film and exploring its realism has opened up a lot of appreciation towards the world that I live in, and the way that brilliant people like Burnett and Agnès Varda, the director of Cleo from 5 to 7, capture its greatness and its sorrow. A film, a plotless story such as Burnett’s or Varda’s, shows me what I might be capable of in the future, and what I might look for and take into account when watching films that display a sort of realism. Reality is something I struggle with as a human and as a storyteller, and it is inspirational to me to see how other people portray the real world and how different or similar their view is from mine.