Blue anesthetic meets with Neo-Realism in the movie Killer of Sheep (1977). The writer brings a blues aesthetic to a style of filmmaking in his work (Kapsis 49). The films deal with what is termed as the “ravages of fascism”. This fascism causes the decay of communities and leaves rifts in national identity.
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The films clearly shows Italians “Oppressed and suffering”. Their oppression could not however, be completely blamed on the Black Shirts and the Nazis” (Kapsis 52). There is also a representation of resistance by providing a “continuing critique of the conditions, institutions, and individual predilections that cause poverty, violence, spiritual distress and isolation” (Kapsis 32). This depicts the use of Neo-Realism more clearly.
Burnett makes use of the neorealist aesthetic even more powerfully because of the addition of the blues. Long before the beginning of the cinema, the blues was able to generate cultural self-reflection in the very initial stages by embracing humanity.
The blues is a type of music which was in existence much earlier than the European literary movements of the early 20th Century in naturalism and realism that can be traced forward to neo-realism in the cinema (Murray 69). Much earlier in the years like 1550, English lexicographers have found records with the phrase “to look blue” meaning “to suffer fear, anxiety, low spirits and discomfort” (Murray 63).
In this movie, Killer of Sheep, there is an unusual innovation made by the soundtracks course throughout the entire film as more than the accompaniment, but as a character. The presence of the character imbues the movie with an overall feel of blues. This clearly underscores the poetic modes of the movie’s visual story.
This effect results into a blues nuance that dominates the entire film. The soundtrack blends with R&B (Earth Wind & Fire) and classical (including George Gershwin, and Sergei Rachmaninoff), jazz and blues with spiritual and folk music (Paul Robeson). This however, does not dominate the movie.
The film and its story therein have its objective in correlation with the blues. Burnett extends cinematic language into the repertoire of the blues just to show this relationship (correlation) more clearly. The blues delimitative statements are not verbal in expression as words.
This is shown clearly in this statement: “however well chosen, are secondary to the music” because “what counts for most is not verbal precision (which is not to say vocal precision) but musical precision, or perhaps better still, musical nuance” (Murray 79).
In the movie, the soundtracks have interlocked the writer’s story and images. This has created an effect of music incarnation. The effect has provided the feeling of pain, sadness and joy. These feelings are very common with the blues (Murray 108).
Burnett in his movie shows us how any musical counterstatement can be used to contradict and in effect cancel strong verbal statement. This is true of the blues. They are more informed by the music than the lyrics. Musical counterstatement can reinforce alienation and sadness or bring hope where there is despair.
Burnett’s artistic approach in the movie depicts his pursuit of the truths of the black working class family lives in Watt after the Los Angeles riots in 1965. He shows the transformation of the lives from the dirt playground to the rooftops, the slaughterhouse and the street. In the camera, he captures love for his characters not because they are beautiful or good, but because they are.
Kapsis, Robert. Charles Burnett: Interviews. Mississippi: Jackson UP, 2011.
Murray, Albert. The Hero and the Blues. New York: Random House, 1995.