john cribbs & christopher funderburg

Every day, it seems like there's more being written about fewer films. The internet is an endless expanse of opinioneering, but every writer seems to be working from the same limited Rolodex. How many times do the virtues of Goodfellas need to be extolled? How many bland "Top 10" lists do you need to see recycle the same titles before you realize, "Gosh, maybe I should see Vertigo and Breathless?"

You might not know it from the 100th article you'll see this week about Hollywood in the 70's or Quentin Taratino's influences, but there's a whole universe of movies out there - every now and then The Pink Smoke will be recommending a pair of films that despite their virtues rarely seem to get dredged up from the bottomlessly shallow internet morass.

frederick wiseman, 1976

If you like: Union reps arguing with intransigent middle-managers, piles and piles of sheep guts, cow carcasses getting cut in half with bandsaws, 70’s style mustaches and sideburns, just barely figurative looks inside the sausage factory, outstanding achievements in the field of documentary excellence.

Points of reference: In a Year of 13 Moons, Gates of Heaven, Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, Franz Kafka (for scenes of impenetrable bureacracy), Salesman, Titicut Follies, American Movie.

Like any Wiseman film, a basic description of Meat sounds as dry and predictable as Buñuel’s daily martini: a look at the day to day operations of one of (at the time) America’s largest feed lots, the Monfort Meat Packing Company in Greeley, Colorado; an exploration of the process that transforms livestock into neatly packed, super-market ready packages of plastic, styrofoam and flesh. It contains some of the best examples of the eternally recurring Wiseman scene: people trapped in a conference room having intractable, essential, alarmingly idiotic discussions - in this case, it’s union representatives taking on management over working conditions and efficiency measures.

Meat comes into focus during those sequences of labor strife because, like any Wiseman film, what it is really about is the messy conflict between individuals and institutions, the value of organizing versus the dehumanization of collectivity. Wiseman has always had a talent for capturing the loneliness produced by institutionalization and the jam-packed, energetic frames of Meat might be his most arresting vision of the subject: a Bosch-esque frenzy of blood-splatter, confinement and labor - with obdurate bureaucracy thrown into the mix. Meat depicts the brutal and tedious isolation of hell.

Of course it’s Wiseman, so the essential humor of human misery seeps from the omnipresent wet clumps of viscera as well as the bloodless, circular disagreements between management and the union reps. It’s the funniest movie ever made that will definitely be impossible to stomach for most audiences. The laid-back, mustachioed Denim Dan union rep who makes the biggest impression is like like something out of an Errol Morris movie - he instantly recalls the pet cemetery bureaucrats from Gates of Heaven (or rather as it came later, Gates of Heaven instantly recalls this character - which makes sense as Morris has always been a passionate fan of Wiseman.) There’s a dark humor to the rep’s resignation - he’s a beaten-down, blue-collar drone who can’t get over the fact that he’s constantly the smartest guy in the room. He’s cursed with being right all the time and not having it matter because his entire existence is set in a world that combines Kafka’s The Trial with the final section of Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.

- christopher funderburg

charlet burnett, 1983/2007

If you like: Can-crushing, mid-afternoon naps, clothes hanging on a fence, awkward dinner parties, non-professional actors, films set in South Central where nobody gets shot (I think only Burnett makes those), the late great Johnny Ace.

Points of reference: Visconti's La Terra Trema, Renoir's The Southerner, Satyajit Ray's The Big City, early Cassavetes, Burnett's own Killer of Sheep and To Sleep with Anger, F. Gary Gray's Friday.

Since we're already on the subject of films set in abattoirs, have you watched Killer of Sheep lately? Charles Burnett's master's thesis-turned-National Film Registry selection is a movie every afficionado should watch at least once a year - it can only benefit one's appreciation of cinema's singularity to make that effort to stay fluent in Burnett's spellbinding film language. Just as captivating yet somehow even more neglected is his sophomore effort My Brother's Wedding, recently screened as part of BAM's Indie 80's series. These are two films that should have sparked a new movement in American cinema in the late 70's and early 80's. Instead, they lingered in near-obscurity until Milestone Films resurrected both for proper limited theatrical releases in 2007, giving Sheep a miraculous second life and Burnett the opportunity to create a brand new director's cut of Wedding.

Like Sheep, Wedding is set in the Watts district of Los Angeles and follows the earlier film's almost neorealist approach to documenting life in the slums. Although there's more of a plot than in Sheep, it similarly plays out in minor sketches set on lazy afternoons and idle nights. While there's nothing quite like Sheep's shirtless dance to Dinah Washington, there are unexpected flashes of romance such as a married couple's interrupted moment of intimacy when their son returns to the room, and dreamlike digressions along the lines of three unrelated pregnant women who enter a dry cleaners one after another. Echoing the famous scene in Sheep where children leap heedlessly between tall buildings, several of Wedding's vignettes abruptly change from frivolous to dangerous, and vice versa. In one of my favorite moments, two men chasing a junkie who just tried to shoot them with a broken gun are forced to stop and cautiously look both ways before crossing the street and continuing the pursuit. There's a botched heist scene that's played for laughs, even though somebody could have easily been killed. Later, there's a tense hesitation between hellbent Soldier and his father when the former returns home from prison... it seems at first like the reunion will be contentious, then they wrap their arms around each other.*

All this is centered around 30-year-old Pierce, one of cinema's least ambitious and most beleaguered characters. Content to lounge around his parents' dry cleaning business when he's not carrying on with a married woman or getting into trouble with Soldier, he's hassled by his brother's snobby "signifyin'" fiance ("Is he retarded?"), pursued by an underaged admirer, constantly jumped by his fist-happy father and shamed for sloth by his church-going mom. He gets away with general inaction and lack of commitment by asking nothing of anyone around him; he doesn't want anything, gladly allowing his unproductive existence to lapse into the collective indifference of his insular environment. It puts him in a comfortable position to judge others and the things they do, all the better to avoid the kind of upper middle class mobility represented by his lawyer brother and future sister-in-law, who surely isn't misspeaking when she assures Pierce's mother that her beau is sure to be "white" successful one day.

In the final third of the film, Pierce has to make a choice he can't escape, one that brings all his carefully-planned callousness crashing down. Suddenly, it's not enough to simply not care and remove himself from the clashing cultures on opposite sides of him - he'll be forced into a literal life and death decision. The spiraling implications culiminate in a lengthy long shot of Pierce running towards the camera, confused and directionless, recalling a similar set-up from The Graduate but punctuating an entirely different emotional dilemma. The shot's so important Burnett kept it intact even after removing over 30 minutes from the film almost two decades later for his director's cut.

As to which version should be viewed, the original two-hour cut from 1983 or Burnett's heavily-trimmed 2007 release? As in most cases my response is, why not both? But if you've only got time for one, stick with the 2007 director's cut: a few scenes end abruptly, but not at a disservice to the narrative, and the pace is much tighter. And the shorter running time will make it easier to pair it up with Killer of Sheep for the perfect double feature.

- john cribbs

~ AUGUST 30, 2015 ~
* [ This moment always reminds me so much of Rififi, an inversion of when Tony first sees his girl after getting out of the pen - and that connection further emphasizes how Burnett's work can only be compared to the greatest films ever made. - funderburg ]