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— Errata Movie Podcast —
26 July 2008 — Episode 019 Podcast

Killer of Sheep
Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977).

In this episode of the podcast we talk about a great American film, Charles Burnett's debut feature Killer of Sheep (1977)

0:00 Intro
2:07 Killer of Sheep
9:27 The Gradual Reveal / Kids and Adults
12:19 Improvised Games
14:55 Continuing a Tradition
16:48 Stan's Malaise
18:31 Bittersweet Humor / Sisyphean Struggle
22:53 Clip: Stan's Wife Dispatches Unsavory Characters
24:00 Pulling Stan Out
25:35 Captured Moments, Real Settings
27:12 Issues of Class
28:37 Low Placement of the Camera
32:11 Long Shot to Close-Up
33:30 Burnett's Other Films
39:08 This Bitter Earth
40:45 David Gordon Green on Killer of Sheep
43:01 Outro

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Duration: 44:08


  • "This Bitter Earth," Dinah Washington
  • Other Charles Burnett films mentioned: Nightjohn, To Sleep with Anger, and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property
  • Killer of Sheep belongs to a strong tradition of films that show how the worlds of children and adults intersect. Other films we mentioned: Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948), The Kid (Charlie Chaplin, 1921), Homework (Abbas Kiarostami, 1989) (and many other Kiarostami films), Ohayô (Yasujiro Ozu, 1959), I Was Born, But... (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932), and Iraq in Fragments (James Longley, 2006)
  • A correction: when I cited a few juxtapositions in the film and talked about how the various, disparate images "mingle in the mind," my recollection of the details was a bit off. The boys running in the street (from dogs) is indeed followed by Stan at work in the slaughterhouse, but the check-cashing scene — which in my head was followed again by a look at Stan's job, and specifically the hooks — is actually followed by a group of boys riding a bike out into the street in front of a car, which nicely completes a circle of danger, come to think of it. The hooks appear elsewhere.
  • Milestone Films official site for Killer of Sheep
Posted by davis | Link | Other Episodes
Listener Comments
July 29, 2008, 04:29 AM

One thing that really struck me in the opening scene was the father's reasoning for his tirade against his son. Sticking up for his brother was not about 'doing the right thing' or 'the value of loyalty', but protecting his future in case 'anything happens' to his parents. To me, that speaks volumes about the mentality and perspective of the father, and the way that survival is a priority which can't be taken for granted.
Because of that, I think there's a really strange tenderness running beneath a scene which is, at first glance, quite unpleasant.

July 29, 2008, 08:33 AM

I think you're right, Adam. And it's another example of the situation slowly coming into view, well after the initial impression. Burnett plops us down, mid-stream, in close-up, and only gradually does that "strange tenderness" become apparent.

You know, that opening scene also reminds me of the opening scene of Fires on the Plain by Kon Ichikawa. We see one soldier slapping and berating another, with a close-up on the face of the private receiving the lecture. He shouldn't have returned from the hospital after such a short stay, he may be infecting everybody with tuberculosis, he may be wasting rations by leaving them behind, he's a worthless soldier, etc. It's an army on the verge of collapse, and the few remaining scraps are important for everyone's survival, hence the officer's outrage.

None of this is surprising in a military setting, where the rules of conduct and the traditions of patriotism are designed around the concept of survival of the whole.

What's surprising is to see them echoed, visually and thematically, in Burnett's Los Angeles neighborhood.

August 1, 2008, 09:25 AM

So where you been, dude? Guess I'll take a listen and find out....

August 1, 2008, 09:27 AM

Well!!! Hrrrrrmmmmmph!

August 1, 2008, 10:39 PM

Heh. Nice setup, Mr. Maya. Errata

August 12, 2008, 11:53 PM

Catching up with my reading after my vacation, and very glad to get some top-quality listening as part of the package! Thanks for this, guys (and sorry about never continuing the Shyamalan conversation after your detailed response in your last podcast comments thread, Rob. Time got the best of me again.)

I also liked hearing David Gordon Green's comments on the film. The first couple of times I saw George Washington I had not yet seen Burnett's film. Now that I have, I'm almost afraid to revisit it, in fear that the magic I got from Green's debut might evaporate in the face of direct exposure to so strong an influence. I should probably brave it though.

August 13, 2008, 01:49 PM

Happy belated birthday greetings, Mr. Rob!! How young are you now?

August 13, 2008, 02:22 PM

Hey, Brian. Thanks for listening. You know, I think George Washington stands on its own, even with its clear influences. I'd never think to give Killer of Sheep the Terrence Malick treatment.

Maya, unless you're referring to my birthday in 2007, your calendar is out of whack. Or your greetings are very belated. 'Cause my birthday is in October. However, gifts and greetings will not be rejected under any circumstances.

August 20, 2008, 06:05 AM

I finally get to see this rare film. Great podcast as usual. Listening to the shows in English out there, really confirms yours is the best, content and form. It's really interesting to listen to your conversations after watching the film.

This is a great film indeed. We can feel the overwhelming summer heat and the weight of life, the nonchalance and laziness, the playfulness and the rivalries. It reminds me of Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation or Stranger than Paradise...
It's a little "messy", lacking wholeness and global coherence, even if we don't talk about strict continuity. Though there are many great scenes, with great ideas, which you describe very well.

One note: I don't think Ozu looks up at people (low angle camera). He lowers the sight-line to the knee level (not the academic eye level), but maintains an horizontal sight-line. I know J. Roberts didn't mean it that way. But this detail does change the perspective lines according to the angle of the camera to the horizontal, and it also changes the psychology of the resulting image.

August 20, 2008, 06:10 AM
J Robert

One note: I don't think Ozu looks up at people (low angle camera). He lowers the sight-line to the knee level (not the academic eye level), but maintains an horizontal sight-line. I know J. Roberts didn't mean it that way. But this detail does change the perspective lines according to the angle of the camera to the horizontal, and it also changes the psychology of the resulting image.

Harry, you're right that keeping a horizontal sight-line creates a different perspective, which is a useful distinction. I hadn't thought about that. I just know that when I watch Ozu, I always feel like I'm looking up at people, and I was amazed during the two-month retro what a different experience that was.

Thanks for the kind words. I'm lame in that I don't listen to any other podcasts, so I'll agree with you that ours is the best I've heard.

August 20, 2008, 07:42 AM

No, you're right. A low sight-line puts the heads of everyone above the horizon, so we are effectively below them. That's what you say. But Ozu's camera doesn't deform the perspective by pointing at the heads from below (which dramatizes the effect), it looks directly in front instead (in a neutral way). I don't even think Ozu moves his camera from horizontality in stairs shots. It's his own convention.

In French we say "plongée" = dive (high angle, looking down) and "contre-plongée" (low angle looking up). They are dramatic effects.

Burnett does use these angles (the domestic fight with the gun, the engine carried by Stan and his friend) for dramatic situations.

August 20, 2008, 07:53 AM

Charles Burnett interviewed by Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment (KCRW podcast, April 9, 2008, 30')

August 20, 2008, 02:54 PM

Harry, thanks for boosting our egos. I always look forward to your responses, and I agree with you about Ozu. His compositions even seem to match the Japanese interiors where most of his films are shot, all those boxes, horizontal and vertical lines.

I think a few of the pillow shots might be low-angle shots, from time to time, like maybe looking up at a clothesline or power lines, but I don't have time to look them up at the moment. Also, in that scene in Tokyo Story when Noriko is showing the older parents around Tokyo, and they look out across the skyline, does the camera look up at them, a little? I'm not sure. Maybe not.

Of course all of those possible examples are outdoors. Indoors he's horizontal, as far as I can remember. You mention the stairs, and I think even in Hen in the Wind where they figure prominently in several scenes, I'm not sure we ever get a shot looking up or down at them. I'd have to revisit it to know for sure.

Killer of Sheep is messy, but I like that about it. Doug recently posted about The Exiles over at filmjourney, and I think this comment from the director, Kent Mackenzie, applies to Killer of Sheep, too: "we sought to photograph the infinite details surrounding these people, to let them speak for themselves, and to let the fragments mount up."

Over at Daily Plastic -- or maybe on the podcast itself -- I'd like to mention a few other film podcasts that are worth a listen. Thanks for that link to Mitchell's interview with Burnett.

August 20, 2008, 05:00 PM

Yeah I was thinking of Hen in the wind too. I noticed that we don't get a look down the stairs. And the view from downstairs is definitely horizontal, because we don't see anything but steps, we don't see her husband upstairs. That's what I remember. But I could be wrong, and it's an early film so it wouldn't discredit his later style.
I'm wondering about the outdoor insert shots too. Chimneys from a window, façades from a narrow street... but I think he manages to fit them in the horizontal frame by pulling back with enough distance. Such shot just wouldn't fit Ozu's universe of horizontals and verticals...

I don't remember very well the shots you mention in Tokyo Story in an outdoor staircase, but you're right they are not orthogonal, I think they are diagonal (horizontally though). Even if the feet of the characters are above the horizon on the upper platform (so the camera is on the lower platform) doesn't mean he has to use an angle to frame them.

But I know I'm being nit picky.

I checked out a few more podcasted featured in the article where they mention Errata, at Film in Focus, but they are either anti-intellectual info-tainment or fanboy chatter... superficial levels of film culture.
I hope you turn yours into a regular offering, interviews and in-depth exploration of a film/oeuvre. The speed-rounds aren't as special to me though.

August 20, 2008, 06:58 PM

I found examples of what I was talking about. They're from that part of Tokyo Story I was referring to.

First, an insert (aka pillow shot) that's a low-angle shot. This is atypical for Ozu, but I think he does this from time to time when he's outside. It does help break the movie suddenly out of those boxes.

Second -- just a couple of shots later -- a shot of Noriko showing the old couple around. They're standing on the steps seen in the first example. In this one, it's actually very hard to tell what angle it's shot at, because of the angled railing, the stairs, and the people who are all standing at the top of the shot. The camera may be angled up, or it may be perfectly in line with one of those top steps. But, as you say, the people in this case are above the horizontal, so we do see them from below.

August 20, 2008, 07:23 PM

Oh, and about the "speed round" episodes... they're a good way to comment briefly on a bunch of basically trashy and/or popular movies, and it's kind of fun for us to do them occasionally, but I like the more in-depth surveys and interviews, too.

We have one more summer speed round in the queue and then we'll probably lay off for a while.

August 21, 2008, 04:31 AM

OK, my bad. The second one is slightly angled too (you can see the "vertical" lines near the sides aren't parallel to the frame).

I didn't mean the speed round was wrong, but it's more common in other podcasts, it's not what raises yours above the fray.

August 26, 2008, 01:20 AM

re: clip of Stan's wife

The two gangsters who want to recruit Stan say "The animal has its teeth and the man has its fists, that's the way I was brought up". that echoes to the lecture of that father lecturing his boy in the opening scene, right?

And then what Stan's wife replies sounds incredibly racist, especially if it was coming from a White mouth: "You think you're still an animal in some god-damn bush somewhere? You're here, you use your brains"... yet it's the voice of reason to discourage criminality.
It's ironic how Spike Lee follows the reverse path in Do The Right Thing, from reason to violence.