The place is Los Angeles and the time is the late 1970s to the early 1980s. This was a period in time where a group of African-American students at UCLA decided to tell the stories of their lives and of their community. Under the mentorship of established filmmakers and with access to resources that enabled them to make films, these group of students would later be categorized as the L.A. Rebellion: films which were independently produced, in rebellion against the exclusion of black stories from mainstream American films. Not only were these films very specific to the stories of the black community, they were also very specific in their technique. Charles Burnett drew inspiration from Jean Renoir for The Killer of Sheep and later became a vital mentor figure for Billy Woodberry when he made Bless Their Little Hearts. Arranged in collaboration with UCLA, the films being shown in this section come from a very specific time and place in the history of American and more specifically, Californian film.
The section began with Larry Clark and his film Passing Through (1977). Clark’s film can be described as a really well-made B-film. The film centers on Eddie Warmack, a black jazz musician who is somewhat of a prodigy at playing the saxophone. He has been mentored and taught the craft by his grandfather, a mysterious figure known as Poppa Harris. Warmack has been recently released from prison. He decides to end his association with his record label – run by a predominantly white male representation – to start his own. He sees a lot of black jazz musicians being exploited by white record industry executives for large profits. The events of Warmack’s struggles are intercut with flashbacks of his earlier years with Poppa Harris as he teaches him not only how to play the saxophone but also his worldly spirituality. There is also documentary footage of various black political movements from around the world.
The film is a fever dream of sorts with long, extended sections of Warmack and his friends playing heavily improvised jazz pieces. Clark’s editing cuts without a warning in time and through flashbacks and news footage and through color and black and white. Clark does show brief moments of stunning mastery of his craft but the film steers towards an underwhelming and generic ending. It also functions under the constant burden to identify a clearly defined antagonist – which as must be the case, is a vile, one-dimensional white male.
The film was shown on a 16mm print at the KASK.
A Slow Night in a Jazz Bar
Charles Burnett’s film has the rhythm of a warm summer afternoon. Characters hang outside on ledges and rooftops, roll down steep hilly neighborhoods. Friends show up at your door and acquaintances ask to borrow money. The grainy black and white world of Killer of Sheep is a valuable document of a bygone place and time in America, a footnote in the country’s cultural history. The film calls to mind, inobviously, Wayne Wang’s Chan is Missing (1982). Though made much earlier than Chan and set in a different part of California, both films are essential records of communities that were never properly represented in American cinema. Both films have a meandering, a-slow-night-in-a-jazz-bar quality to them.
The eponymous ‘killer’ of Killer of Sheep is Stan, a slaughter-house worker played with a charmingly calm demeanor by novelist, playwright and actor Henry Gayle Sanders. He lives in an economically declining Watts, a part of Los Angeles now devoid of its former place as the centre of manufacturing. The people of the neighbourhood, a pre-dominantly black community go through their days in long, eventless stretches of time having to find ways to keep themselves from slipping into inevitable despair. Early in the film Stan holds a warm tea-cup to his cheek and remarks to his friend that it reminds him of making love to a woman, to which his friend replies that he wouldn’t know because he never made love a woman with malaria.
Stan is worn down by his job at the slaughter-house, we see him hosing down the floor and ripping flesh off severed heads of sheep. We see sheep flocked together oblivious of the fate that awaits them, much like the characters of the film, who flock together in houses and on playgrounds. Children throw stones at passing freight-trains and jump across roof tops. The film is rendered in a very specific cultural signature.
Allegedly, Burnett was heavily inspired by Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945) as well as the documentaries of Basil Wright who was also one of Burnett’s teachers at UCLA. The film is now preserved on 35mm and is probably one of the most interesting pieces being shown in the L.A. Rebellion section at Courtisane.
The third title presented in the L.A. Rebellion section was the Charles Burnett scripted film Bless Their Little Hearts at the Paddenhoek cinema, the only cinema in Ghent with parallel 35mm projectors. The film’s director Billy Woodberry was in attendance along with fellow L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Barbara McCullough. Pedro Costa, Thom Andersen and William Hooker were also seen seated in the back rows. Bless Their Little Hearts shares its location (Watts) with Burnett’s Killer of Sheep but is set seven years later. The characters of the film can easily be imagined in Killer of Sheep, individuals cut from the same cloth. They have the same issues looming over them: unemployment, boredom, borderline poverty but the film surprisingly lacks the easy-going humour or fleeting carelessness of the earlier film.
Burnett not only scripted the film but also took on the duties of the cinematographer. In the talk that followed the screening of the film, Woodberry acknowledged Burnett’s role as his mentor and his influence on his work. He also stressed on the importance of being present in that time and place when making these films was possible.
Charlie, the man of the house spends his days looking for a job while his wife and three children try their best to get by on what little they make. The children are seen doing chores around the house while their mother has periodic outbursts of frustration and nerves. Charlie’s marriage is stagnant and his bedroom is dead, he tries to initiate sex every night with his wife and is turned down constantly. He is comparable to Stan from Killer of Sheep, the only difference being Stan has a job at the slaughterhouse which is taking a toll on him while Charlie is desperate for just any kind of work that can bring in some income. Charlie would probably gladly take Stan’s place in the slaughterhouse if he were given a chance. Both these films present us a place in economic decline, a community deprived of a proper way of making a living and men who have their masculinity challenged in the face of circumstances beyond their control. Where Stan keeps letting himself be consumed by the vicious nature of his work, Charlie keeps trying. Even when he is able to secure a temporary job cutting weeds, he is determined to make it work.
However, Charlie lacks Stan’s dedication to his family. One can say that Charlie is equally dedicated to providing for his wife and children, he is also easily carried away into having an affair with an old acquaintance when the chance presents itself. Perhaps it is understandable. Charlie sees himself as a beggar and beggars are seldom choosers. He is at a point in his life when he will take any little opportunity that comes his way- even if it is a chance to relieve his sexual frustration outside of wedlock. Stan, on the other hand declines such an opportunity when he is offered one by the owner of a liquor store in The Killer of Sheep.
Charlie’s choice eventually results in what can be called the central point of Bless Their Little Hearts. A torrential confrontation by his wife in the kitchen leads him to move from denial to furious anger to eventually resignation and repentance. This key sequence is filmed in an unflinching long take while wife and husband weave around each other between the kitchen furniture. Woodberry’s direction and Burnett’s camerawork works up the scene to a feverish crescendo. This is really good filmmaking.
Woodberry’s talk after the film throws light onto the difficult circumstances he fell into soon after the film was made. He describes the film as something “that was never meant to exist but it does so he couldn’t expect it to result in financing for his subsequent projects”. He assured his audience that he hasn’t given up on making films yet and that he has been spending his recent years developing another film that he hopes to make soon.
Coming Up: A talk between Billy Woodberry and Barbara McCullough – members of the L.A. Rebellion as part of the DISSENT! series at the festival.