Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Beauties of Burnett

NEW YORK—I was originally going to devote all of last weekend to immersing myself in some of the films of African-American independent filmmaker Charles Burnett, thanks to the complete retrospective of his work currently going on at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It didn't entirely work out that way; on Saturday, instead of seeing Burnett's 2007 film Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation as I had initially planned, I ended up (thanks to Foursquare—see, location-based social media does have its valuable uses!) meeting up with a couple of old friends from college and crawling around the East Village all afternoon and late into the night. Hey, it's New York; that kind of thing happens! And it was such a lovely day out that I felt no guilt about it whatsoever.

Namibia—which, to be perfectly honest, has an unappealingly academic-sounding title—is supposed to be screening again at MoMA a couple weekends from now. One quick look at my calendar suggests that that next screening may conflict with a Satyajit Ray film at Walter Reade Theater that I'm dying to see (his 1973 film Distant Thunder, for those who are curious; Film Society of Lincoln Center has programmed a series of late Ray films after its series of his earlier work in 2009). This weekend, then, may well be the only one in which Burnett's films figure into it. For that reason, I might as well go ahead and discuss the by-and-large excellent films I saw this weekend.


Burnett, for those who aren't aware of him, is an African-American filmmaker who has been working on-and-off for about four decades now, making many films about the black American experience that have often found favor from critics but have never found their way into more popular acclaim. The fact that Burnett's aforementioned three-hour epic about Namibia's struggle for independence from South Africa—featuring a big name in Danny Glover, no less—has still only played at film festivals more than three years after its completion gives you an indication of how marginalized a figure Burnett has been over the course of his career, despite the heroic efforts of intrepid film critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum to bring him into the public eye.

But the tide may finally be turning in his favor. It took 30 years, but his 1977 debut feature Killer of Sheep was finally restored and given a proper theatrical release by Milestone Films in 2007; a two-DVD set of that film, his 1983 follow-up, My Brother's Wedding, and some of his short films followed. And now he has this big museum retrospective in his honor.

Before this series began, I had only seen Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding, so I was looking forward to seeing his later, more difficult-to-see work. Here's some of what I wrote about Killer of Sheep for the Daily Targum—Rutgers University's daily newspaper—upon its belated theatrical release in 2007:

From its deliberately unassuming—and, in this 35mm blow-up, noticeably grainy—black and white cinematography (Burnett shot the film himself) to its authentic location settings, and from the fairly amateurish performances of its mostly nonprofessional cast to its episodic plot—all of these elements serve to give us the feeling of real life taking place right in front of our eyes.
The real life of this film isn’t particularly glamorous, either: its main character, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), works at a slaughterhouse for a living—thus the film’s title—and goes through much of the film palpably disillusioned by the depressing reality of his lower-class existence in his Watts, Calif. community. In its interest in capturing the harsh realities of the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, Killer of Sheep works in the great tradition of neorealism, the famous post-World War II artistic movement that attempted to render real life on film as authentically as possible with documentary-style techniques—handheld camerawork, outdoor location shooting, etc.

But Italian neorealist classics like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves or Roberto Rossellini’s Open City aren’t great just because of its documentary-like realism. Like De Sica and Rossellini, Charles Burnett has both compassion and a poetic—yet fiercely unsentimental—sensibility to go along with his sharply observant sense of lived-in realism.

Thus, no one is made out to be exaggerated caricatures in Killer of Sheep—not even the two show-offy “rich” guys who are first seen stealing a television set, and then are shown asking Stan to participate in a murder for money. Even scenes like those, Burnett suggests, are an unmistakable part of life in an African-American ghetto; you do what you feel you have to do in order to get by in such dire surroundings.

And even in the midst of Stan’s sense of despair, Burnett is still able to find, and poetically convey, moments of indelible beauty and joy. Perhaps its most touching moment comes in long sequence in which Stan and his wife (Kaycee Moore) share a silent slow dance in their apartment to the tune of Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” It’s all in one unbroken shot, and Burnett’s camera simply sits there, observing the wife’s attempt to try to reach out to her emotionally distant husband. When the song is over and the dance ends, everything seems to be back to (dreary) normal. Within Killer of Sheep, however, those small gestures—and there are many of them at unexpected, isolated moments—have the power of giant deliverances.

The Burnett films I saw this weekend generally build on the more enthralling qualities of both Killer of Sheep and his worthy second feature My Brother's Wedding. All of them, though, are quite different from either of his two early features, suggesting a stylistic adventurousness on his part that supplements his sociological and humanistic concerns.

His rarely screened 1990 film To Sleep With Anger is an intimate family drama that, as a result of its spiritual elements, becomes the stuff of folklore. Danny Glover, probably the most high-profile actor in this cast, gives a beautifully insinuating performance as Harry, an old acquaintance of Gideon (Paul Butler), the patriach of the film's central clan. Gideon kindly lets Harry stay over his house...but Harry turns out to have a malicious streak, as he slowly but surely begins to wreak havoc on the family's relations, threatening to tear the unit apart in subtly insidious ways. His malice manifests itself in its most physical form when Gideon himself suddenly falls into a coma one morning—surely not unrelated to Harry's continued presence in the household.

The character of Harry, however, doesn't represent anything quite so simplistic as the "evil" to the family's "good." As others have commented, Harry is a modern incarnation of the Trickster, a being who acts in a dangerous manner but whose actions often have unexpectedly positive outcomes. In this case...well, as Burnett depicts in the opening scenes of the film, this family was already swimming in buried tensions and generational divides; they only needed someone like Harry to push those tensions to a boiling point—to the point of bloodshed, in one instance—and apparently they only needed someone like Harry to at least help pave a way toward a promising resolution. In the world Burnett creates in To Sleep With Anger—realistic yet full of magical possibilities, a kind of supernatural variation on the milieu he explored in his first two films—even that mediocre kid trumpet player who annoys everyone in town manages to get at least one tune right by the end; tellingly, the kid gets this strange and oddly heartwarming film's final image, as his cacophonously tuneless trumpet playing transforms into a beautiful improvisation that plays over the end credits.

There's more beauty in Burnett's 1994 police drama The Glass Shield—to date his only film to get released by a major studio, in this case Miramax—though it's a stark kind of beauty, one that highlights the film's angry substance. Instead of the kind of harsh, gritty realism of other urban crime dramas made during that time—films like Boyz N the Hood (1991), for instance, or Menace II Society (1993)—Burnett, with the aid of cinematographer Elliot Davis, bathes much his based-on-true-events tale in neon-blue colors and dark shadows, turning the Los Angeles county precinct headquarters into some kind of Hell on earth. He also  encourages composer Stephen James Taylor—who wrote the folksy score for To Sleep With Anger—to turn up the heat in his music for the film, imparting an operatic grandeur to the story. It's still quite harsh and gritty—its sprung editing rhythms (Curtiss Clayton did the editing) keep us on our toes as the story unfolds—but there's a visual radiance to it that, surprisingly, doesn't detract from the power of this tale of police corruption, racism, compromised morals and idealism punctured.

The Glass Shield is a more story-driven film than any of his previous feature work, and Burnett's economical approach to storytelling here sometimes makes the film seem choppier and neater than his previous work. It's still a gripping and brilliantly told story, though, and its underlying themes and emotions still pack a punch, especially the bitter irony of its concluding twist (which apparently Burnett had to fight to keep in, as Miramax demanded a softer ending). It's as socially conscious as Burnett's previous films, except done in a more urgent and electric style than any of them.

Social consciousness is not the first thing one might think of when encountering The Annihilation of Fish, Burnett's as-yet-unreleased 1999 comedy-drama with James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave both playing endearing elderly nutcases who fall in love when they both move into an apartment building owned by Mrs. Muldroone (Margot Kidder, barely recognizable here in her aged makeup). Actually, "nutcase" is a bit too strong of a term to describe them—though they certainly seem like little more than crazy people during the film's set-up, which comes so perilously close to drowning in its "look-at-me" quirks that it nearly tried my patience. But even with the titular Fish (Jones) claiming to be literally wrestling a demon named Hank, and with Poinsettia (Redgrave) experiencing heartbreak after being forced to split for good from her invisible friend Giacomo Puccini—yes, that's right, the famous Italian opera composer—Burnett somehow manages to look past the relentless whimsy and locate the emotional heart within Anthony C. Winkler's oddball screenplay.

It's not so much that Fish and Poinsettia are "crazy," as in mentally insane. In Jones's and Redgrave's performances, there are underlying hints of deep personal pain—perhaps from tragic pasts that the film only slightly hints at—that these idiosyncracies mask; their quirks are their defense mechanisms from worldly hurt. In that sense, their madness is metaphorical in nature rather than literal; at least, that's the way Burnett seems to treat the material. (In a few moments of outright stylization, when Fish wrestles Hank the demon, Burnett's camera sometimes playfully adopts the demon's point-of-view; when he throws the demon out into the trees just outside his apartment window, there's a rustling sound heard in the leaves every time.) Much of the drama of their relationship, then, comes from whether these two characters will eventually break through those defense mechanisms, confront their pain directly and move past the (for lack of a better word) demons unsettling them both.

The Annihilation of Fish isn't quite an overlooked masterpiece; it's less visually distinguished than some of Burnett's previous features (someone at the Q&A session after the film's screening on Friday night suggested that this film might work as a Hallmark Hall of Fame-type movie, which gives you an indication of its visual ambition), and, as I suggested earlier, it's so aggressively whimsical early on that it may drive some viewers nuts in the beginning. And yet, once you ease yourself into the film's zany world, one senses traces of Burnett's usual sensitivity and humanity. He refuses to condescend to this zany material; the film never becomes the cutesy-poo "two-old-codgers" comedy one expects. The result is a film that, against all odds, becomes strangely moving without becoming overly saccharine. (Maybe Burnett would have been a better choice to direct The Beaver than Jodie Foster.)

MoMA's Burnett series runs through April 25, with these aforementioned films receiving second screenings. Again, I'm not sure if I will be able to see any more films in the series (which is exhaustive enough to include a lot of his television work, including his Disney Channel film Nightjohn (1996) and a 2003 PBS documentary about Nat Turner), but if any of you live in New York and don't know much about Burnett, his films are worth taking a chance on. On the basis of what I've seen—all of them brimming with beauty, warmth and insight—I think he's not only one of the finest filmmakers we have in America, but certainly one that deserves to be better known that he is.

[Of these three films, only The Glass Shield is easily available on DVD here in the United States. To Sleep With Anger was released on DVD in England by the British Film Institute, but it looks to be technically out of print now...though, if you're willing to spare the greater expense, you might be able to find used copies somewhere online.]

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