Monday, December 10, 2007

American Genius: Charles Burnett (retrospective)

When Cinematheque Ontario recently presented four features (and a bunch of shorts) by Charles Burnett, I decided to watch them all. I felt woefully under-informed about this apparent ‘lost genius’ of American filmmaking, but what I knew of his cinema-vérité approach, naturalistic acting (often aided by the obvious mix of professional and non-professional actors, scripted scenes and improvised ones), and 'sombre but not hopeless' tone, really appealed to me.

Charles Burnett is singularly fixated on the theme of male impotence. His leading men are broken, defeated, paralyzed, ghettoized. Whether it’s real or imagined, their feeling of being unable to give to the world what the world asks of them is so ingrained, it leaps off the screen in every film. His depiction of a deeply disturbing and real African American disaffection is more effective than any I’ve seen on screen.

He's also incredible at endings. Not one of his films falls apart in the third act. The endings are all pretty much perfect. Basically, all these films are totally worth seeing, and I feel a bit ashamed that it took me till the age of 30 to see them for the first time.

Here’s a quick rundown of the four features:

Killer of Sheep
Director: Charles Burnett | 1977 | 83 min | USA
Arguably Burnett’s most famous accomplishment, follows slaughterhouse worker Stan as he goes through the motions of his life, unable to enjoy his time with his family, unable to make love to his desperately lonely wife, and unable to change the circumstances that keep him down.

My Brother’s Wedding
Director: Charles Burnett | 1983 | 115 min | USA
Young Pierce Mundy helps out in his mom’s dry cleaning shop while his yuppie brother plans to get married to a rich girl. When his troublemaking best friend gets killed and the funeral is scheduled for the same day as the wedding, Pierce has to decide between the two. He’s disaffected, resentful and totally incapable of making a real decision about which direction to take his life in.

Bless Their Little Hearts
Director: Billy Woodberry | 1984 | 80 min | USA
Written but not directed by Burnett, follows a similarly downtrodden man, Charlie, as he unsuccessfully tries to get a job and maintain peace in his home while having an affair across town. As Charlie’s wife (Kaycee Moore from Killer of Sheep) reaches the end of her rope, the two begin the film’s climax, a long, no-holds-barred improvised fight that lays it all out on the table in a gritty, real and powerful way.

To Sleep With Anger
Director: Charles Burnett | 1990 | 92 min | USA
This later film is a pretty great example of the Burnett style, made subtler and more refined by the passage of time. Danny Glover gives the performance of a lifetime (seriously) as Harry, a friend from the past who disrupts a middle class family’s comfortable existence. Harry is a charming trickster whose influence seems to corrupt anyone who comes into contact with him. His dark power is chilling and palpable from the first moment he comes onscreen. Strange, dark, full of subtle, nuanced characters – I think this one was my favourite of the bunch.

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