Once upon a time I found myself researching the Jonestown massacre, which took place in Guyana in 1978. Most of the victims of the mass suicide were disenfranchised black Californians, who'd fled the poverty of the USA in the hope of creating a new society in the jungle. Killer of Sheep, made in 1977 and filmed on the LA back streets, (a part of the city which the movie cameras never normally reach), gives a sharp insight into the world that the doomed pioneers left behind.
Burnett's movie, a neglected classic, is a small slice of life drama. The film has a documentary feel, interwoven with a gentle narrative about Stan's (played with an effortless nobility by Henry G Sanders) efforts to keep his family life together. Burnett was influenced by neo-realist cinema, and the early scenes of young kids playing in vacant lots are reminiscent of Los Olvidados. The film is full of shrewd, localised observation, as kids play, squabble and cry, and men find ways to preserve or lose their dignity in the face of their poverty. There are dozens of moments which illustrate what can be achieved by doing nothing more complicated than pointing a camera in the right direction at the right time, moments which engender both humour and pathos. However, in spite of its apparent simplicity, Killer of Sheep's potency comes from the director's touching narrative, illustrating the way that Stan's marriage is affected by his circumstances, notably the dehumanising job of work in an abattoir. The scenes between him and his wife are resonant with both the struggle and rewards of love, as both work to keep the flame of their marriage alive in spite of their poverty.
Any film seeking to get under the skin of a world has to show both the rough and the smooth. Killer of Sheep pulls this off. It's possible to see how one of the characters at the grimmest margin of this world could have chosen to chuck it all in to join Jim Jones' peculiar Utopia. However, it's also clear why most wouldn't even have considered it. No matter how impoverished the world it describes, it's full of life and humour. The streets themselves become a kind of walking theatre, where you never know if a child will suddenly fly across your head leaping from building to building, or run out in front of you wearing a dog-mask. Burnett pins the world down, his camera immortalising the rhythms of the streets and speech he seems to know like the back of his hand.
If you wander round the backstreets of downtown LA today, you soon find yourself much further from the Hollywood Hills than simple geography would have you believe. Burnett's LA looks a lot like one imagines Haiti to be. In a way, it seems as though Burnett's grainy camera, lighting and sound, are the only way to truly represent this world. The minute the full force of cinematic technology is unleashed, even the grimiest corners acquire a hint of glamour. The down-to-earthness of Burnett's cinematography reveals the way in which Hollywood's technological dominance constantly helps to mythologise the American Dream. Usually, even their ugly has a beautiful, distorted feel. Killer of Sheep, is rarely ugly (though the abattoir scenes are unforgiving), but somehow it succeeds in presenting Los Angeles as ordinary, something which ironically begins to lend the city a charm that is never normally captured on film.