THE CINEMATIC BLUES OF CHARLES BURNETT AND BILLY WOODBERRY
As the films of Luis Buñuel, Alain Resnais, Terrence Malick, and Chantal Akerman proved decades ago, there’s no such thing as realism. Filming events that could plausibly have happened in the lives of a movie’s characters, if they were real people and the filmmakers could have filmed them, is no guarantee of realism—the selection and arrangement of the events and the way that they’re filmed can render them surrealistic, abstract, hallucinatory. Proof lies in two hidden classics from decades ago that are close cinematic relatives: Charles Burnett’s first feature, “Killer of Sheep,” from 1977, and Billy Woodberry’s first and (to date) only dramatic feature, “Bless Their Little Hearts,” from 1983 (which Burnett wrote and shot). Both underscore the point perhaps less radically than other films but no less originally, personally, and idiosyncratically: realism isn’t a method or a premise but a result, emerging not from circumstances or intentions but from artistry. Both films, distributed by Milestone, are reopening today at IFC Center, to commemorate the the fortieth anniversary of the completion of Burnett’s film (which was only released in 2007 due to the commercial obstacle of music rights).
Both movies are shot in black-and-white; both are set in the predominantly black neighborhood of Watts, in Los Angeles, and are centered on a single family—mother, father, young children (two in “Killer of Sheep,” three in “Bless Their Little Hearts”). For that matter, the mother in both families is played by the same actress, Kaycee Moore. Both films are centered on work—“Bless Their Little Hearts” is about a man who doesn’t have enough of it, while “Killer of Sheep” shows a man who has too much of it. Burnett’s protagonist, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), works in a local slaughterhouse, killing and butchering animals with his own hands. It’s physically and psychologically demanding labor, which—in conjunction with his domestic responsibilities, as well as the stresses of his social life and, perhaps most decisively, the ambient tensions of the community at large—are wearing him down to an affectless, emotionally detached silhouette of a person.
The film opens with a primal scene, of young Stan being disciplined by his father about the responsibilities of becoming “a God-damn man” and slapped by his mother. This is followed by scenes from Watts of children at play, as well as a grim scene played with a touch of slapstick comedy, as two men steal a television set, an older man catches them in the act, a boy—Stan, Jr. (Jack Drummond)—tips the thieves off, and one of the thieves threatens the witness. Only then does the adult Stan make his appearance onscreen: first seen from behind, laboring under the family’s kitchen sink, his backside in the air and his head unseen as he cuts and lays linoleum, caught between a friend to whom he bemoans his fate and his daughter, Angie (the director’s niece, Angela Burnett, who also appears in “Bless Their Little Hearts”). Burnett (doing his own cinematography) films with a thick sense of community, filling frames in the street and indoors with people in motion, people coming and going, people reaching out and watching—among whom the stolid Stan, both strong and fragile, who thrusts himself into action in order not to think of anything but the task at hand, seems frightfully alone, shrinking ever more compactly and opaquely into his own reduced identity.
Money and the lack of money are constants—Stan’s friends come to borrow it, other friends try to lure him into a criminal plot to get some, Stan needs a little bit more to buy a new engine for his car (which becomes a scene of another rumbustious bit of slapstick)—and the very textures of life are worn thin by the privations of poverty (a dour scene of a thwarted weekend outing suggests the narrow limits imposed on experience, and on emotional life, by that lack of money). Nonetheless, Burnett is a paradoxical romantic, a filmmaker of profound moods and ambient tenderness—from Stan’s deeply loving glance at Angie while he labors in his kitchen, and his recollection of the skin-to-skin heat of a lover’s cheek, to a scene that’s one of the most intimately melancholic moments in modern cinema, in which Stan and his wife perform a long slow dance in their living room to Dinah Washington’s record of “This Bitter Earth.”
There’s also violence and danger in Burnett’s purview—children fighting uninhibitedly and hurting each other brazenly; a man who has been beaten up in a brawl; a scene of domestic violence, with a woman chasing a man at gunpoint, that’s also played for an element of broad comedy (the spirit of Charlie Chaplin looms large in Burnett’s scathing sweetness)—and he offers a scene of sudden terror, in which children at play jump from roof to roof across a mortal chasm. Children are present throughout—a pregnancy is a major event—and Burnett devotes an earnest and eager attention to the seriousness of play. With his soundtrack of blues and Paul Robeson and popular music and classics, Burnett collects a catalogue of artistic history along with his characters’ firsthand experiences; he himself makes a kind of music, a cinematic blues in which transmission of the living history of intimate experience, the crucial emotional life that’s passed along from generation to generation, is embodied even as it dramatizes the threat to that transmission.
But the very first thing that gets passed down, in Burnett’s view, is an intense gendering—the idea and impossible ideal of being a man, starting with the subjection to violence as a child and continuing to the infliction of violence as an adult. The underlying grid of “Killer of Sheep” is the sense of a historical cord being cut by the demands and stresses of modern life, in which that continuity and sustenance is all the more crucial merely to get by, let alone to make progress—to pass along and yet to transcend the terms of that inheritance.
The title of Woodberry’s film, “Bless Their Little Hearts,” evokes the centrality of children and the perspective of parents, and it, too, is a story of gendering—along with a story of racial identity and of money trouble. The movie begins with the out-of-work Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) filling out forms in an employment office; his wife, Andais (Moore), works to support the family, leaving her exhausted even as she cares for their three young children. Charlie hangs out with friends who try to lure him into a scheme of robberies; he tries to put an emphasis, he says, on the spiritual dimension of life, but the pressures of the material realm are inescapable. The material realm is both financial and physical. He’s present as his friends compare with proud bravado the blackness of their skin.
Domesticity and intimate life are central to Woodberry’s vision of selfhood—a bath, a shave, a haircut; Andais’s confidential kitchen-table chat with her older daughter about boys and her own thwarted dreams. When it’s time to give the children their allowance, Andais secretly hands Charlie the coins so that he, as nominal head of the household, can dole them out. Charlie is a devoted father with a clear idea of what it is to be a man—and this, too, Woodberry renders with an intense domestic physicality, in a scene that begins with trivia, when Charlie notices that his son’s fingernails are long and then cuts them, forcefully and reproachfully, explaining that long nails aren’t for men but for “little girls” and “little sissies.”
The word “man” echoes throughout “Bless Their Little Hearts.” A man, in Charlie’s view, works. But Charlie has trouble getting work, and it weakens his place at home. Soon, he gets day labor—as a weed whacker, as a house painter—but the solitude and precariousness of his work is hardly a salve to his wounded identity. His remedy is an affair: he meets a former girlfriend by chance and starts to see her again. For her, it is, among other things, a welcome change in domestic circumstances—her children, she says, “need a man around the house.” Charlie siphons some of his meagre earnings to her; Andais figures it out. The showdown that results—a ten-minute take in the kitchen, in which she unleashes her fury at Charlie and they both unleash a seemingly pent-up lifetime of disappointments and frustrations—is one of the great domestic cataclysms of modern movies, worthy of a place alongside the films of the same era by John Cassavetes.
It’s a blowout from which Charlie and his family recover with difficulty; seeking a new source of immediate income when even day labor dries up, Charlie digs out his fishing tackle and tries to catch fish in order to sell them, effectively thrown out of modernity and thrust back into a state of feral combat with nature.
Woodberry’s distinctive style is pensive and introverted—he’s a reflective filmmaker whose scenes of action are matched by extended scenes of inaction, in which his protagonists pass through the cityscape or sit or recline alone, collecting and measuring their circumstances, seeing their identities mirrored and distorted in the world around them. Where Burnett keeps the characters of “Killer of Sheep” in their neighborhood (Stan may work outside Watts but he seems to hardly touch the ground anywhere else), Woodberry starts outside Charlie’s local sphere, in the employment office, and continues to watch his characters as they pass, detached and rueful, through the wider city, in transit through a blasted post-industrial landscape in which Stan, in particular, sees his own enforced idleness reflected. “Bless Their Little Hearts” is a tale of breakdown and discontinuity, the story of an endgame done in a tersely introverted mode of stifled contemplation, punctuated by devastating furies.
Burnett and Woodberry are two of the crucial figures in the L.A. Rebellion, a group of black filmmakers, centered around U.C.L.A. in the nineteen-seventies and early eighties, whose films have enduringly marked the history of cinema. Among its other artists are Julie Dash (best known for her feature “Daughters of the Dust,” from 1992), Haile Gerima (whose film “Bush Mama,” from 1975, was recently screened at moma), and Monona Wali (whose film “Grey Area,” from 1982, was shown at bam Cinématek earlier this year). All of these filmmakers have had truncated or gappy careers (Burnett’s has been the most active); their influence has largely been subterranean, intimate, confidential—and mighty. The generational history at the center of their work has proven to be the very story of their careers; if the history of the cinema, with its screenings and restorations, its retrospective series and home-video and streaming releases, is worth anything at all, it’s in the transmission not of a mere story about past influence nor even of documentation of past circumstances but of a direct, firsthand experience with artistic creativity, with original inspiration and its yet unforeseen influence on the future.