Quotidian Poetry: Killer of Sheep, The Namesake, The Lookout
By Fernando F. Croce

What a joy to see Killer of Sheep on the big screen. Charles Burnett's great life-in-the-ghetto mood piece has been a cinephiliac Holy Grail for thirty years (I've seen it twice in dismal video copies), more raved about than watched. Its belated theatrical release makes it now seem all the more unique, though it has always stood outside of any zeitgeist -- consciously an anti-Superfly in 1977, Burnett's film seen today goes against so much of the hustling blockbuster mentality as to feel nearly avant-garde in its purity. It opens on visceral close-up, a family row, black faces against black backgrounds and shouting over brotherly protection; a slap to the face, then Paul Robeson rumbling on the soundtrack. Already, the alleged "artlessness" of the 16mm imagery glistens with the most lyrical artifice, the frisson between lush and stark, the visual-emotional grandeur of the mundane. The Watts neighborhood shot on weekends with the director's friends is dusty and lifeworn, tenements housing both frustrated adulthood and carefree childhood; the kids arrange mock-battles in construction sites and throw stones at the freight trains slogging through, a couple of hoods evoke primal survival in blunt poetry ("an animal has its teeth, a man has his fist"). The killer of sheep is the doleful slaughterhouse worker (Henry Gayle Saunders) watching it all around him, unable to sleep or to respond to his wife's (Kaycee Moore) dancing, numbed by life yet ennobled by the pride of his struggle. The hyperpoeticized tone is hard to describe, Burnett's camera has affinities with Renoir or Rossellini or Altman in its frame-stretching expansiveness, able to look at the world and see things -- a little girl in a floppy dog mask, a used engine crashed in the asphalt -- with sadness, delight and sublimity. New films have a lot of catching up to do.

*

Nothing beats Killer of Sheep's final movement for a vision of life's melancholic struggle -- the mimed bulge of a future pregnant belly segueing into sheep being led to the abattoir, a quotation from Franju's Le Sang des BÍtes turned ineffably soulful by Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth." Mira Nair, another humanist, supplies a smaller moment along similar lines in The Namesake when Tabu, the Bengali beauty transplanted from lush Calcutta to freezing New York with her husband (Irfan Khan), whips up a bowl of cereal with powdered chili and peanuts on her first day alone in a new country. The moment displays authentic sensitivity to physical and cultural separation, elements which feature saliently in the couple's trajectory through Nair's sprawling, uneven, heartfelt adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri's 2003 novel about multigenerational assimilation. As the decades go by, the competing pulls of the immigrant experience come together on the irritation of the couple's son (inimitable bong-hitter Kal Penn, showing surprising emotional mobility) with the name given him by his parents; a deeper understanding finally comes with tragedy, and with romance with a sexy cosmopolitan Bengali woman (Zuleika Robinson) with multicultural knots of her own. Thankfully ditching her need to find a raucous shivaree inside every scene -- the mock-exuberance that rattled her calamitous version of Vanity Fair -- Nair works in accumulative observation, disarming patches of celebration and sorrow, and loving textures. If the filmmaker is obvious enough to contrast the majesty of the Taj Mahal with the sterile blankness of an American motel room, she is also wise enough to remember and value the sage advice given the departing heroine ("Embrace the new... Don't forget the old") and hold all human sides in tender balance.

*

I'm told Scott Frank's screenplay for The Lookout has gained near-legendary status around Tinseltown as one hell of a blueprint that somehow never got made. Seasoned pro that he is (Get Shorty and Minority Report are among his credits), Frank knows the best way to keep Mickey-Mousing auteurs away from his baby is to deliver it himself, so he's turned director. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the neo-noir protagonist, a former hot-dog hockey player now sharing a flat with a blind roommate (Jeff Daniels) in between janitorial jobs, the result of a car crash that's given him survivor's guilt and brain-damaged lapses; since his latest job is at a snowy burg's bank, he readily qualifies as patsy for a gang of robbers who have yet to catch up with Fargo, A Simple Plan, The Ice Storm or any of their direct-to-video knockoffs. There is plenty to savor here, principally the volatile sensitivity of Gordon-Levitt, who, with Mysterious Skin, Brick and now this, remains my favorite actor under 30. And, if Frank's objective was the most direct exposition of his screenplay, then mission accomplished -- the film unfurls via unfussy storytelling possibly picked up from his collaboration with Steven Soderbergh in Out of Sight (temporal shuffling is similarly aped, less successfully). Problem is, the medium can't be boiled down to the cleanest presentation of a screenplay, and Frank's film is so reverent of its source's "structure," "arc" and "motivation" that it never becomes a breathing work -- it's a professional script professionally shot, rather than a personal story burning to be told. The messiness of Killer of Sheep or The Namesake reminds me that life flows beyond the film frame, while the streamlined order of The Lookout reminds me why I quit screenwriting class in college after one day.

*

Blades of Glory, meanwhile, reminds me not so much of college as of junior high, when sights of guys in shiny sequins pirouetting on the ice were funny enough to compete with Ren & Stimpy episodes. (Ah, memories.) Older, hopefully wiser and less repressed, I now expect more from man-on-man subtext -- certainly more than Will Ferrell and Jon Heder locking crotches as the Sigfried & Roy of figure skating. Banned rivals who pair up to get back in the competition, burly Ferrell and wispy Heder glide off the thin, monotonous premise, but at least the gay-panic gags come off as fumbled attempts at underdog deadpan, less obnoxious than the frank disgust of Wild Hogs, say. More to the point, the movie is not funny: Ferrell empties out his bag of tricks in the first fifteen minutes (four bellows, one torn shirt), Heder is still the most unappetizing question-mark in modern cinema, and all of their coy skating routines combined add up to less than Ferrell's ribbon-twirling Olympiad bit in Old School. If Blades of Glory has one single idea to hump, Meet the Robinsons has too many -- courtesy of half a dozen credited writers, or maybe of Disney's flailing attempts at grabbing its straying audiences by hurling everything at them. It begins, weirdly enough, like the recent Russian drama The Italian (twee inventor in orphanage sets out to find his real mom), then proceeds toward Back to the Future by way of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T; the animation is in 3-D, so that a Family Guy season's worth of random crap (an arachnoid bowler hat, a clan of spastic eccentrics, a Rat Pack of jazzy frogs) can snap and jerk at the screen like the afterburp of a kid's sugar binge. Brad Bird's Ratatouille can't come soon enough.


Reviewed April 5, 2007.

Back to Archives
Back Home