Sunday, November 4, 2007


I recently saw two films at WHC that complimented each other well, though they weren't shown together: Killer of Sheep (1977) by Charles Burnett and Pather Panchali (1955) by Satyajit Ray. Both are debut films that have an unrelenting sense of reality to them, a documentary quality that sets them immediately at odds with everything that is contrived and manipulative in cinema. Not that I'm saying that realism in film isn't manipulative -- both of these films aim for emotional effects that can't be achieved without deliberate dramatic rendering, of course. No one just sets up a camera and films what happens (except Warhol). But the way these films create their sense of reality is what is most absorbing about them. It begins with the fact that the characters don't strike us as actors; they seem to be the actual people whose stories we are watching. This is an effect that is impossible to achieve with name actors and familiar faces, so only personal, out-of-the-way films like these can establish an aura of authenticity in place of the aura of celebrity that drives the films that dominate our theaters.

Killer of Sheep is a striking portrait of a man who works in a slaughterhouse and spends his time insomniac, depressed, and trying to cope with a low-income lifestyle in a Black neighborhood in CA that Burnett presents not only with gritty realism, but with genuine humor and affection. All the little intimate details of life leap into relief against the backdrop of minimal existence. The adult actors are amateurs, the kids are children of friends and relatives, and everyone seems real and believably vivid in ways that only, perhaps, non-professionals can be. One of my favorite episodes in this collection of vignettes is when the main character and a friend go to buy a car engine that some acquaintance has stored in his livingroom. They carry it out down some rickety old stairs, load it onto the back of an open pickup, during which the friend hurts his finger and so, when asked to help shove the engine further onto the truck bed, replies, "it'll be ok." The truck starts up, backs up, the engines rolls off and cracks on the road. The friend looks at it and says, "it's no good now." So the engine gets left there, looking like some great fragment of meteor dropped from space, held in longshot as the camera moves away with the truck. There are many wonderful cinematic touches in the film; Burnett, who made the film as a student at UCLA, showing a flair for set-ups that seems almost unpremeditated yet very deliberate.

Pather Panchali is the story of a struggling family in rural India; it's the first installment of the Apu trilogy which follows the fortunes of a boy named Apu -- a stand-in for the director, I believe. I have seen all three on video and only watched the first film at WHC, though all three were screened. What the first one has that the others lack, I seem to recall, is the strength of authenticity -- an authenticity I'm linking to the use of what we might call, to invoke a painting metaphor, a restricted palette. What Pather Panchali offers is a glimpse of a lifestyle that is so minimal it's refreshing. I can't think of another film that so tenderly, but deliberately, evokes a sense of family and place. It may be that this film is the standard to which other films of families facing poverty's restrictions (The Rat Catcher and La Mouchette from last year's film series come to mind) must aspire.

Ray's camera is always evocative, but never maudlin, never didactic. Each shot seems to gleam with a sense of the scene's reality -- the most vivid sense of sub specie aeternitatis I've ever seen on film. The main events -- the birth of Apu; the theft of a neighbor girl's necklace by Apu's older sister, Durga; the death of the nearly toothless and stooped Auntie (who has to be one of the most memorable visages ever placed on screen); the visit to "see the train"; Durga's illness; the storm; Durga's death -- occur with a rhythm that rarely distinguishes an important moment from a random one. It's more "like life" we can say, since all the dramatic crescendoes and climaxes of a standard film have nothing to do with how one actually lives, never knowing that this moment "leads" to something else or will become fatal. A good example is the accusation of theft: it seems false, another example of persecution by the uppity neighbors; only at the end do we see that it was true, gaining a retrospective reading on the deceased Durga that is the more effective for being implicit, left as an internal adjustment for each viewer.

Seeing Pather Panchali after Killer of Sheep retrospectively illuminated Burnett's film. In the discussion with Burnett after the screening of his film, a few questions posed his relation to neo-realism, which made me think of the Italian version, such as The Bicycle Thief (another film I need to see on the screen sometime), but I think Burnett's film is much closer to the feel of Ray's film, a film that doesn't strive for any didactic point except that life goes on, even for people who live "like this." Ray ends with a death and the family's departure for the city (my problem with the subsequent films is that I like Apu best as a boy and I prefer Durga to Apu in any case); Burnett ends with a neighbor's announced pregnancy (after the main couple in his story have finally gone to bed together again), as a suggestion of resilience despite circumstances. Both films, as corny ad-talk hyberbole would say, "celebrate the human condition"; their strength as films is that they allow the audience to celebrate what film brings to the evocation of conditions of existence we might otherwise never know or see.

Every artist begins somewhere in space and time. Perhaps the best thing he or she can do is show us what that was like. (If I really believe that, then it would mark a significant change from my earliest aesthetic).

I've heard you say many times
That you're better than no one
And no one is better than you,
If you really believe that
You know you have nothing to win
And nothing to lose.

--Dylan, "To Ramona" (1964)

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