THE THIRTY YEARS WARS
by Harvey Perr
published November 27, 2007
Killer of Sheep – The Charles
Cuba – The Ultimate Edition
Milestone Films has pulled off the coup of the year by releasing, within a week of each other, two of the year’s most essential
and elegantly packaged DVD box sets – “Killer of Sheep: The Charles Burnett Collection” and “I Am Cuba: The Ultimate Edition” – which no
serious film lover would want to live without. It is no small irony that the other major cultural cinematic event – Criterion’s “Berlin
Alexanderplatz” – was released at the same time, and it is hoped that that doesn’t in any way undermine Milestone’s achievement.
“Killer of Sheep,” the only UCLA Master’s Thesis film to be chosen for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress,
received its first theatrical release last March, thirty years after its debut, and was immediately acclaimed as the year’s major film
event, an echo of last year’s American premiere of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Army of Shadows.” For those of us who knew the work and have been
singing its praises for years, despite having seen it in varying degrees of deterioration, the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s 35mm
restoration was not merely an extraordinary triumph but a vindication, and the high-definition transfer which Milestone has given us caps
that triumph. The film, difficult to describe in the same terms we apply to most movies, is essentially a poem, an impressionist portrait of
life in the Los Angeles community of Watts, told through images of such raw honesty and simplicity that they embolden one’s spirits even as
they break one’s heart. There is very little in film annals that is anything remotely like it. Too true to be considered experimental, it is
nevertheless the boldest form of experiment. And, once seen, most of its images make indelible imprints on our consciousness: the body
language of the couple dancing beautifully but painfully to Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth,” the children idly passing before the
camera with their masks on which makes about four statements in one regarding their existence and their invisibility, the leaping sequence
which is both death-defying and just plain playful. What is remarkable about these and the film’s other haunting moving photos is that they are rooted in the most ruthless sense of
realism and yet, taken together, create an effect that reaches heights of visual lyricism.
This set takes into serious account Charles Burnett’s significant contribution to African-American art and, one might add, it’s
about time. The commentary, one of the many bonus features included, by Burnett and Richard
Pena, pays a little too much attention to that fact, and there is more talk about its sociological impact than on its poetic imagery when a
little more of the latter would be welcome. It is, however, a minor complaint. The set also includes four short films, one of which – “The
Horse” – owes something to Sergio Leone but remains pure Burnett, a poignant meditation on waiting and death. Also included are both the
original 1983 “disastrous” version of the full-length “My Brother’s Wedding” and the 2007 Director’s Cut; the revelation is that the
original version is not only not “disastrous” but, in some ways, the version that more closely connects it to Burnett’s debut film.
In either version, and how good it is to have the choice, it plays better in its DVD transfer than it does on the big screen. It tells more
of a story and is more blatantly political – in the sense of personal race politics - than “Killer of Sheep,” but achieves the same blend
of naturalism and poetry as the other in its own distinctive way.
For more reasons than one could encapsulate in a single review, Mikhail Kalatazov’s “I Am Cuba” is one of the most important
events in the history of cinema. Its background is impressive, the painstaking efforts to rescue it from obscurity are awe-inspiring, its
impact on film-making in general is an ongoing process. But once all of the above is taken into account, it is the film itself that has one
reeling, a film that generates deliriousness and inspires a sense of magic in the eyes and mind of each viewer, because it seems to reinvent cinema, and therefore awakens its audience to a rediscovery of cinema.
Perhaps if there is a fault, as Martin Scorsese suggests but then retreats from, it is that we get too caught up in the film’s technique,
wondering how this was done or how that was done, but even if that is so, we are eventually caught up in the sweep of the film’s drama, in
its passion, even in its propaganda.
It is in its fusion of poetry and propaganda that “I Am Cuba” proves that it is heir to the legacy of the great Russian cinema of
Sergei Eisenstein. And it is clear that Mosfilm spared neither time nor expense on its making. The script was written by Cuba’s Enrique
Pineda Barnet and Russia’s Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Kalatazov, who directed the memorable “The Cranes Are Flying,” was asked to direct. The
great cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky was brought into the mix and, perhaps most significantly, Sasha Calzatti, who was responsible for
most of the film’s dizzying effects, was the camera operator. And the final result was a labor of love that did honor to the Cuban
Revolution. And so it remains one of the great mysteries of contemporary cinema that the Russians and the Cubans let the film die an
unceremonious death after its initial unsuccessful run. Once it was rediscovered in 1992 at a screening at the Telluride Film Festival, it
received the praise of Bertrand Tavernier and the Quay Brothers, among other film-makers, despite its lack of subtitles, and went on to a
sold-out performance at the 1993 San Francisco International Film Festival. Then, thanks to the diligence of Milestone’s Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, with help from Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, the
film finally was released in the United States thirty years after its initial release.
And now, in a package that includes “The Siberian Mammoth,” Vicente Ferraz’s documentary on the making of the film and “A Film
About Mikhail Kalatazov,” a tribute to the film’s director, and an excellent interview with Scorsese, which bursts with his enthusiasm for
the art of filmmaking, “I Am Cuba” comes to us neatly packed into a replica of a cigar box from Havana. If that sounds like a gimmick, it
should be pointed out that it is an homage to the film’s most unforgettable image: a traveling shot of a funeral procession that we follow
as the camera moves up the side of a wall and moves into a small cigar factory where an insurgent flag is passed from worker to worker and
unfurled out the window where we see the funeral procession continuing on its path. It is only one of the totally surprising and beautiful
images that comprise “I Am Cuba.”
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com