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What Almost Made Me Cry Today: Killer of Sheep

February 28th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in What Almost Made Me Cry Today

Stan (Henry G. Sanders) looks like he's about to cry.

Usually, when I write these “What Almost Made Me Cry Today” episodes, they revolve around some movie I’ve just watched on an airplane. Well, today’s is no different—except that the movie was quite unusual. Most airplane movies are of the recent-blockbuster type. Or, if the plane has a complicated entertainment system, there’s some inoffensive classic like “The Wizard of Oz” or “Caligula” “Big.”

Well, on my Air Canada flight home from Montreal last night, the “Classics” section of the entertainment system included a big surprise: “Killer of Sheep.”

Unless you’re a film d00d, you’ve probably never heard of it. But the 1977 movie, directed by Charles Burnett, is amazing. Shot in black and white in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, it loosely tells the story of a family led by Stan, whose long hours of work at a slaughterhouse have left him exhausted, insomniac and anhedonic. For about 88 minutes, we see his kids play in the dust of vacant lots, and we watch Stan try to buy an engine for the shell of a car he plans to fix up. It’s thoroughly depressing, especially one scene in which Stan dances with his wife and then, when she kisses him, he pushes her away. Totally heartbreaking.

But the part that almost made me cry comes a few minutes later, when Stan’s daughter, who’s maybe 6, comes to play with him. He’s bouncing her on his knee and, for the first time in the whole movie, starting to smile. From the other room, his wife watches, nearly bursting into tears, happy her husband can take joy in something but miserable she can’t bring him that joy herself. Oh man.

I probably would’ve cried right there, but I was distracted. At just that moment, the plane was flying down the length of the island of Manhattan, and at 8pm the city was completely lit up. Is there any more beautiful sight than that, electrified New York on a clear night? As we circled around the city and back toward LaGuardia, I could even pinpoint my house in Brooklyn and imagine my wife and kid inside. No need to almost-cry anymore.

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