In the decades since Charles Burnett finished his 1977 slice of life Killer Of Sheep, the film has frequently been cited as a touchstone in black and indie film, even though it's remained largely unseen outside of festival screenings and university classrooms. After the Library Of Congress made Killer Of Sheep one of the first 50 films added to its National Registry in 1990, the UCLA Film & Television Archive embarked on a full restoration, and once Burnett secured the last of the music rights, he was finally able to get the movie into theaters earlier this year. But frankly, the theatrical run was just a prelude to the DVD, which offers the ideal, low-key presentation for Burnett's string of loosely connected vignettes. (And also his tinny sound mix.)
The virtually plotless Killer Of Sheep follows one working-class Los Angeles family over a succession of summer days, as patriarch Henry Sanders trudges from his job at the slaughterhouse to his crumbling home, where he lives with his melancholy wife and rowdy kids. On the DVD commentary track, Burnett says he wanted to avoid making a film that people would interpret as "speaking for the black community," so he loaded Killer Of Sheep with everyday incidents, simultaneously amusing and poignant: Sanders tries to buy a rusty car engine from a neighborhood pimp, Sanders and his friends attempt to drive to the racetrack, Sanders' kids have rock fights at the train yard, and so on. The movie sports striking black-and-white photography, simultaneously plain and slightly abstracted, and though the acting can be distractingly amateurish, Burnett's dialogue rings true, and is often funny.
The Killer Of Sheep DVD also contains four elliptical Burnett short films (stretching from 1969 to now), plus another "lost" Burnett feature, 1983's My Brother's Wedding. Once again, the film's acting is so clunky that it's initially off-putting, and there isn't much fresh about the story of one man's conflicting obligations to his middle-class brother and ex-con best friend. But the film's well-observed naturalism and sharp dialogue gradually overcome any objections, as Burnett brings to the screen a side of American life that movies rarely acknowledge: how we talk and how we work.
Key features: A too-brief Killer Of Sheep cast reunion (plus that helpful Burnett commentary track), an earlier, rougher cut of My Brother's Wedding, and the aforementioned shorts.