DAVID LEVINSON reports from the Auckland Film Society. This week: in recognition of Charles Burnett.

LA-BASED filmmaker Charles Burnett finally received due critical attention last year when his seminal thesis-film, Killer of Sheep (1977), was released from the purgatory of an uncleared soundtrack, and made to tour the festival circuit. Seen today – in a climate given to either Klumps grotesquerie, public-service campaigning or lurid tales-from-the-ghetto – the result is a relevation: Shot on scratchy 16mm, spare in its use of sound, and overwhelmingly sensitive to the minor uplifts and long-standing inertia of everyday life, Killer of Sheep casts a neo-realist look at the residents of L.A.’s Watts area – in the process nearly single-handedly redefining the limits of black domestic cinema.

For all his noted cultural worth though, Burnett drew an embarassingly small crowd when he appeared for a Q&A at last year’s New Zealand International Film Festival in Auckland; in a bid, therefore, to amend our blindspot to the much-canonised director, this year Film Society is showcasing four of his features (including Killer of Sheep), as well as a handful of early short films.

Granted its inaugural screening at the Academy last week was Burnett’s long-unavailable second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), presented in a newly-released director’s cut (the original version version runs half an hour longer). Essentially a companion piece to Sheep – despite retrofitting its scrapheap syntax in glorious colour (all the better to soak in the azure tedium of LA) –, the movie is once again consumed by the bric-a-brac phenomena of suburban life, stringing its observations out across an episodic structure and employing a similary apathetic protagonist. Where as Sheep’s ailing Stan, however, bespoke of a soulful, blue-collar anguish, Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas) – the lanky soulpiece of My Brother’s Wedding – has more in common with the slackers that riddle Richard Linklater’s universe. (Indeed, Burnett may be commiserating that difference in the film’s opening shot, consisting of Pierce’s dad’s head floating mournfully against a black backdrop – as a ghostly and unmistakeable relic of slavery, it hints at the roots of distress underlying the film’s calm-seeming surface.)

By avoiding the brutal typology of John Singleton though, Burnett never turns Pierce into an emblem for a generation’s failings. Likewise, when violence finally enters his passionate scope, he refrains from pitching it as a chronic and faceless symptom of black life. (When two men, for instance, ponder robbing the Mundy’s drycleaning store before getting cold feet, Burnett tracks them to their getaway car, where they devolve into a squabble with a woman urging them to return and finish the job.) Thus, without softening the reality of black life, Burnett manages to accent it with a humanity that keeps his universe shuffling along as a flurry of intimate moments, juxtaposed against grand displays of love, death and resistance. As the central figure in that constellation, Burnett assembles a humane, critical, and fully-rounded portrait of Pierce – as a coddled 30-year old, still living under his parents’ care and helping out in their drycleaning business; as a best friend, called upon to deal with his buddy Soldier’s drifting in and out of jail; and, finally, as a product of middle-class repression, stripped of a cross-to-bear and desperately seeking some kind of recompense – which he discovers in the form of his brother’s upwardly-mobile fiancée, Sonia, and her affluent family. (Unable to curb his disdain for the union, Pierce lets his feelings spill over into an unchecked verbal lashing during dinner between the two families). Yet that chic disdain suddenly mutates into the site of something far more morally haphazard when Soldier is killed, and Pierce is forced to choose between being the best man at his brother’s wedding and attending Soldier’s funeral – each of which has been irreparably scheduled on the same afternoon. As a painful crossroads, the moment proves the tipping point in a movie dedicated to the quiet scrutiny of its hero’s integrity, and charting of his rise into manhood – from the mini-trials of kitchen-table confabs (a recurring motif in Burnett’s work), to the point where, breaking out from under his parents’ reign, he leaves his brother’s wedding in order to pay his respects to his dead friend. Whether, in doing so, Pierce “does the right thing” is as moot as trying to assess Mookie’s actions at the end of Lee’s film; unwilling to pass judgement, Burnett turns the ending into a moment of raw self-determination – and in the process, forges something timeless.