Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Killer of Sheep

Burnett’s daughter Angela behind the mask

Angela Burnett

KILLER OF SHEEP              A                    
USA  (83 mi)  1977  d:  Charles Burnett                   

This bitter earth
Well, what fruit it bears
What good is love
mmmm that no one shares
And if my life is like the dust
oooh that hides the glow of a rose
What good am I
Heaven only knows

Lord, this bitter earth
Yes, can be so cold
Today youre young
Too soon, youre old
But while a voice within me cries
I’m sure someone may answer my call
And this bitter earth
Ooooo may not be so bitter after all

“This Bitter Earth,” by Dinah Washington

A spare, near documentary examination of everyday life in the poverty stricken black neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles in the mid 1970’s, brought to near poetic poignancy by Burnett’s obvious affection for his subject matter, and like Cassavetes, certainly Shadows(1959) and Faces (1968) come to mind, in his early independent ventures he uses many of his own family and friends, made for about $10,000 shooting mostly on weekends, a film that was submitted as his UCLA film school thesis.  Written directed, filmed, produced, and edited by Burnett, what’s particularly affecting in the film are his naturalistic shots of so many children at play, many throwing rocks in dusty vacant lots, abandoned construction zones or railroad yards, jumping off and climbing on roofs, hanging out in back alleys, fighting and playing taunting word games with one another, and occasionally a child will be seen crying or getting hurt, but the playing immediately resumes afterwards.  The affection that Burnett displays for children is simply amazing, catching a young 4-year old girl unawares as she puts her clothes on all by herself, observing unsupervised kids eating at the breakfast table, where sugar is the obvious condiment of choice, or eavesdropping on conversations, as one girl notices the other was missing in school, warning her that she might fall behind.   While some may find the repeated images of a lambs to the slaughter metaphor a bit heavy handed, but there’s no disputing what the future holds for these children and how accurate Burnett’s reflections are, as today one-third of all black males under 30 are incarcerated at some point, and this film was made 40 years ago (see: The Crisis of the Young African American Male and the Criminal ...).

Mostly we spend time with the family of Stan, played by Henry Gayle Sanders, a slaughterhouse worker who lives paycheck to paycheck, who is too proud to think of himself as poor, but he obviously struggles how to get by each and every day.  While there’s no real narrative, instead there’s a fluid dynamic of Burnett’s camera observing life as it happens, where kids engage one another, adults have typical problems that are difficult to discuss, friends come and go, opportunities present themselves, people have to go to work, and it’s hard for parents in this neighborhood to ever find some free time for themselves.  One of the most telling images in the film is the look on the face of Stan’s wife, Kaycee Moore, a sensuously expressive woman who is simply glaring at him as he’s refusing her outright requests for affection and is instead allowing their young daughter (Burnett’s daughter, Angela) to hang all over him and get the affection that she obviously needs.  Her slow burn is unforgettable — and painful to watch.  When a couple of shady characters attempt to engage Stan as a partner in a robbery attempt, Stan’s wife steps from out of the background and speaks her mind, aggressively placing herself between these guys and her husband, holding her ground, never backing down.  Earlier the couple slow danced together to the music of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” Dinah Washington - This Bitter Earth 1960 - YouTube (2:28),  where she made her feelings imminently clear, but he was strangely unresponsive, which is typical of Burnett, demythologizing the overactive black male sexual myth by simply showing how easily one man’s thoughts can drift elsewhere from time to time. 

Mostly this is a gentle, occasionally humorous, lyrical film with fleeting images presented as vignettes that respect the world we live in rather than cast judgment, much of it wordless set to evocative music, from the historic bass tones of Paul Robeson’s “The House I Live In” "The House I Live In" (Paul Robeson) - YouTube (3:12) or “Going Home” Going Home - YouTube(4:41) to the classy lyricism of Dinah Washington, from the harmonica led, blues infused Little Walter’s “Mean Old World” Little Walter-Mean Old World - YouTube (2:55), to an undaunted 4-year old singing along to the more pop culture of the era, Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “Reasons” Earth, Wind & Fire - Reasons - YouTube (4:58), from Elmore James’ Chicago blues classic “I Believe” Elmore James - I Believe 1952 - YouTube (3:19), which wails over a back door craps game, to the joyous, free-spirited strutting music of Louis Armstrong's “West End Blues” Louis Armstrong - West End Blues 1928 - YouTube (3:20), which accompanies the couple’s attempt to step out for a change, all of which adds a classical dimension to the film’s structure, shading each sequence with yet another layer of intimacy and grace, providing a musical heritage to black people’s lives.  Made about the same time as David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD (1977), these films couldn’t be more opposite, yet they aren’t like anything else from that or any other era, which makes them especially significant, as first films have a unique tendency to unleash the artist’s imprint.  This is an elegant, uncompromising film, a time capsule from a soft-spoken man of quiet dignity who raises our eyebrows with the elegiac images he composes from one of the least accurately portrayed neighborhoods in films.  This has the feel of a fervent prayer.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

After Love (L'Économie du couple)

AFTER LOVE (L'Économie du couple)        B                    
France  Belgium  (100 mi)  2016 ‘Scope  d :  Joachim Lafosse          Official site [UK]

One might have loved to see this in Xavier Dolan’s hands, as the explosive moments, simmering anguish, and shifting visual dynamic might have turned this into an emotional powerhouse of a film.  As is, it’s an elegantly restrained, yet astute, chamber drama about the disintegration of a marriage, using no backstory or flashbacks to reveal how we arrived at this state, but the film begins in the midst of family turmoil, as the husband (filmmaker turned actor) Cédric Kahn as Boris arrives unexpectedly on a day that violates the separation agreement, causing his wife Marie (Bérénice Béjo) to fume about the ensuing chaos this causes in the home, as instead of getting ready for a bath, the two kids Jade and Margaux (appropriately played by two sisters named Jade and Margaux Soentjens) want to play with their Daddy.  What’s confusing, however, is that the couple hasn’t actually separated, due to the financial instability of Boris, whose tenuous work history is on and off, finding it difficult to hold a steady job, so he’s still living in the home, having his own separate room.  What is clear, however, is that Marie has had enough of Boris, where every little move he makes bothers her, finding him a nuisance who is more trouble than he is worth, continually making her upset, where it takes all her energy just to contain herself and act normal in front of the children, as inside she is seething with anger.  Béjo’s fiery temper is held in check, but she is pushed to the edge in the film, while Kahn is another matter altogether, as it’s clear there’s a pronounced element of shame and self-loathing, so he acts in a much more despicable manner, often the result of how he perceives he is being treated, as he has a tendency to lash out at others, blaming Marie every chance he gets, though it’s clear throughout that she’s the stable partner, financially and emotionally, with unquestionable mothering skills, while Kahn is more hit or miss, trying to be there for his kids, but often he misses the mark, promising more than he can deliver.

With few blistering moments, more of a carefully choreographed drama of dissonance and clashing emotions, the film doesn’t have the surgical precision it may have intended, but is more about trying to preserve every last shred of humanity while you are totally exposed, every defect in plain view, as your marriage is falling apart directly in front of your children, who are innocent bystanders in this incendiary flame-out of what was once a happy love affair.  The troubling aspect is that you can’t hide the obvious dysfunction, where you’re as apt to behave in a bizarre manner or blurt out something inappropriate, all against your own will, but you simply can’t control yourself, as you are relying on instincts that don’t work anymore, becoming overly paranoid or aggressive, always thinking the worst of your partner, as if they are tying to undermine not just you, but everything you stand for.  This results in continual bickering and constant flare-ups, where Marie couldn’t be more agitated, but Boris acts like he’s done nothing to provoke her, like there’s still a chance, always acting innocent, yet he’s easily the more hurtful of the two, routinely accusing her, even stooping to blaming her for his own personal failings.  Marie just wants him out, the sooner the better, but shows sympathy for his financial situation by allowing him to continue living there, as she’s always covered for his losses, that’s been the history of their marriage, so she continues to tide him over until he can stand on his own two feet.  The problem is that day never comes, and it only gets worse.  The children, as they seem to be in nearly all French films, couldn’t be more natural, where the acting throughout is nothing less than exquisite, most of it taking place within the claustrophobic four walls of the house, which is the real bone of contention, as Boris wants half what it’s worth, even though Marie is the one paying all the bills.  Boris argues that his carpentry skills helped rebuild it when they moved in, significantly improving its market value.  And while that may be true, elevating his share to half is a stretch, considering she paid nearly the entire mortgage, so she thinks offering a third is more than generous.  This squabble keeps them busy throughout, though the numbers hide what’s really going on underneath, as both feel diminished in each other’s presence.

The film premiered in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes in 2016, as did PRIVATE LESSONS (2008), one of the director’s earlier films, while OUR CHILDREN (2012) premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes under a different title, LOVING WITHOUT REASON, where Belgian Actress Émilie Dequenne won Best Actress, as she did in competition at Cannes for the Dardenne brother’s earlier film ROSETTA (1999).  So this Belgian director has built some prominence, at least in France, though he’s not well known here.  Nonetheless, the film has a graceful style, accentuated by the precision of Bach piano music, where this family, after fifteen years of marriage, is clearly out of synch, breaking apart at the seams, where almost unnoticed is the class difference between the two of them, which is never really explored.  The bravura scene of the film is a dinner sequence right out of Maurice Pialat’s À Nos Amours (To Our Loves) (1983), where Pialat himself devastated the actors on the set, who had no advance notice, unexpectedly dominating the scene, verbally undermining each and every guest at the table, literally laying waste to what was otherwise a polite moment of bourgeois stability, where he clears the deck of any and all pretense.  Kahn is a lightweight, by comparison, but the implication is the same, as he, in the same manner as Pialat, arrives on the scene completely by accident, where Marie is having dinner with several guests on their outdoor patio, drinking several bottles of wine, expressing her continual anguish at having to put up with the infantile behavior of her husband, who makes a scene out of everything, perhaps with the knowledge that he’s soon to be out of the picture altogether, so why not go out with a bang?  As if on cue, he enters through a back gate, but out of courtesy (or perhaps pity) one of the guests asks if he’d like to share a glass of wine.  Politely accepting the offer, knowing his wife is fuming at his presence (suddenly gone silent), so he extends the invitation to include a taste of whatever’s sitting on the table uneaten, where it’s probably the best food he’s eaten in months, as he’s excluded in his own household, so he takes full advantage of the situation.  He fills the eerie silence with sarcastic remarks that are intentionally rude, challenging each one to confess what his wife has said about him.  Despite being told to leave, he refuses, so the guests decide they’ll leave, but Marie intervenes, claiming she made a cake for the occasion.  Boris immediately remarks that he’d love a piece of cake.  Growing ever more discomforting, this kind of prolonged agony is at the heart of the film, as all they have left is the power to destroy one another, having lost any traces of love.  What’s left of their marriage is summed up in a final rendering of the judge’s decision, where the two are left speechless, drained of all emotion, as a perfectly harmonious Bach Prelude plays over the end credits.