Wednesday, 17 June 2020

The Horse (1973, dir. Charles Burnett)



Burnett made this short in California on a break from shooting Killer of Sheep, using some of the grant money for his much better-known feature. The conception is simplicity in itself. Based on a Faulknerian short story he’d written—he’d early on dreamed of adapting Faulkner—the film presents a group of white men waiting outside a derelict shack in the midst of vast farmland. An African American pre-teen stands apart from the group in the field, gently attending to a horse. We learn that he’s the son of Ray, the man the group have hired to shoot the horse; Ray eventually turns up as the sun has almost set, reuniting with his son and taking the gun which one of the men loads with a single bullet. The death happens off screen in a final freeze frame on the boy’s anguished covering of his ears as Burnett’s jump cut makes the screen literally leap with the sound of the shot.

In contrast to the busy soundscape of Burnett’s first film, Several Friends (1969), The Horse is sparse on dialogue and action, concentrating instead on the sounds emerging from its distinctive landscape. Ray is played by Burnett’s fellow LA Rebellion director Larry Clark, himself later to direct a film about Black cowboys, and Burnett’s film in its iconography and setting clearly gestures at the Western, perhaps most obviously the opening sequence to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), at once enshrining and undermining Hollywood's the romanticised nationalism of frontier mythos. Leone’s nod to Ford occurred most obviously in his use of Monument Valley; but whereas Leone lets Claudia Cardinale ride across its distinctive, open rocky landscape on her journey across the new frontier, the landscape of Burnett's film is at once lusher and more constricted. The opening shots establish a vast, green open space, dwarfing its inhabitants; yet, set it as it is in a valley surrounded by steep hills, we almost never see the sweeping horizon that characterises the classic Fordian model. The trio of gunfighters in Leone’s opening sequence includes Woody Strode, one of the few African American actors permitted access to John Ford’s west which is Leone’s point of homage and critique: Strode riding across Monument Valley in Sergeant Rutledge (1960) serving as a kind of apologia for the racism of Ford’s earlier films emblematised in his 1964 Cheyenne Autumn. Despite their virtual invisibility on screen, Black cowboys were the inspiration for a number of staples of the genre: African American lawman Bass Reeves was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, while the plot of The Searchers (1956) was likewise based on an incident involving a Black cowboy, transformed in Ford’s film into John Wayne as racist killer, motivated by an ideology of family loyalty, national expansion, and race purity. But, as this transformation of source material indicates, the Western in general has performed a long history on exclusion of the Black cowboys who in fact constituted a significant part of the Frontier workforce. Burnett’s film—though not a western per se—thus acts as corrective while simultaneously tapping into the genre’s dynamics of masculine violence and the racialised invasion or defense of land. As in the slaughterhouse scenes that dominate Killer of Sheep, White America gets Black America to do its dirty work. Yet, unable to bear the consequence themselves, its inarticulate white males are unable to state this outright. Instead, the film, with the weight of allegory, makes the point visually, in its opening shots of shoes, suggesting different class status or aspiration (from shined brogues to scuffed work shoes) which we might suppose made from the hide of horses like the one whose fate the film concerns.



As in Killer of Sheep, music and sound design makes a subtle but important part of the film’s implicit argument. If the soundtracks of his other early films were alive with the sounds of Black history and Black sociality—the overlapping, sometimes raucous dialogue of Several Friends, as its characters kill time and shoot the breeze, or the history of Black Classical music, from William Grant Still through Dinah Washington, provided in Killer of Sheep—here, the soundtrack is dominated neither by dialogue nor by music but by the eerie creaking of farmyard equipment, which at times comes to resemble avant-garde instrumental or electronic score. Burnett surely has in mind the dialogue-free opening sequence of Once Upon A Time In The West, in which a soundscape of similar creaks, the buzzing of a fly, and so on, again take the place of music, yet in themselves become musicked, sounding something like real-life musique concrete. Whereas Leone’s white men are gunfighters awaiting the arrival of the villainous Frank (Henry Fonda, played against noble, Abraham Lincoln type), Burnett’s men are indeterminate in profession (though they mostly wear ties, suggesting some position of power or at least steady employment) and are awaiting instead Ray (played by fellow L.A. Rebellion director Larry Clark). Yet both films await an act of violence, and violence is a part of the being of Burnett’s tie-wearing White men as much as it is of Leone’s gunfighter types. Throughout American popular culture, but particularly in the Western, horses are simultaneously sentimentalised (Roy Rogers and ‘my pal Trigger’) and summarily dispatched with casual violence (as in the infamous cliff-edge leap in Jesse James (1939), after which the American Humane Association to monitor the treatment of animals in Hollywood films; this incident is sometimes attributed to the 1940 John Wayne vehicle Dark Command, in which, ironically enough, he co-stars with none other than Roy Rogers.) In itself, this doubleness functions along the same lines that constitute the implicit ideology of anti-Blackness, in which characteristics of sentimentalised fidelity are projected onto those who are also subject to gratuitous violence, bondage and the condition of social death. (In his reading of the film, Frank Wilderson suggests that “the horse is just an alibi” for racialised, homosocial violence.) The film hints—rather than states—the violence which white Americans force Black Americans to perform might easily be redirected at Black Americans themselves: the historical connotations of a group of massed white men and a handful of African American men in the midst of open country are hard to ignore. Burnett subtly underscores this with the casual, contained violence of the shot in which one of the men flings is pocket-knife into the porch ceiling above; the sudden explosion of racial epithet from one of the other men, ignored but not contradicted by the other characters; or the slow loading of the handgun at the end of the film. Whereas both Several Friends and Killer of Sheep, as Several Friends tend to focus on Black sociality, with white people a minimal presence, here, the focus on whiteness, and the way it outnumbers blackness in a social configuration, is key to the film’s suppressed drama.



The film opens with a fragment of Samuel Barber’s orchestral song ‘Knoxville—Summer of 1915’ (1948), a setting of a James Agee poem which depicts an urban community in the midst of a war that’s never mentioned by name.



It has become that time of evening
When people sit on their porches,
Rocking gently and talking gently
And watching the street
And the standing up into their sphere
Of possession of the trees […]

Confident in their ‘possession’, owning house, street, and its natural surroundings, safe within the domestic sphere of the white family and its generations of parents, grandparents, grandchildren, the inability of this community to anticipate the geopolitical conflict which will decimate their ranks (and, autobiographically, the deaths of both Agee’s and Barber’s fathers) finds expression only in generalities intuited by its youthful speaker – ‘Who shall ever tell the sorrow / Of being on this earth […] Oh, remember them in kindly in their time of trouble; / And in the hour of their taking away.’ The poem ends on a crisis of identity that troubles its picture of loving family and loving community as mirrors of each other:

And those receive me,
Who quietly treat me,
As one familiar and well-beloved in that home:
But will not, oh, will not,
Not now, not ever;
But will not ever tell me who I am.

Read this way, Ray’s son functions something like the speaker of Agee’s poem. But the identity he cannot name is one connected to a far more deathly unhomeliness than Agee’s combination of nostalgia with existential unease. After all, the white men of Burnett’s film barely even pretend to receive or quietly treat Ray or his son as ones familiar and well-beloved in the derelict shack that stands in for a home: the crumbling ‘house I live in’ under the weight of collapse in the closing years of the Vietnam war—with its racialised death count on both sides—inner city rebellion, and coming economic collapse. In Several Friends, a horse suddenly appears at the edge of the frame as its characters watch a fight in a parking lot. The shot is never repeated and never explained: blink and you’d miss it. The incongruity of that shot—as in the now-iconic scenes of masked children playing in Killer of Sheep—serves to emphasize a surrealism that bites back at a patronising realism which would trade in pity or abjection, fresh instead with all the possibilities of the marvellous. Here, however, the horse serves to index a whole set of racialised violence, both cinematic and extra-cinematic, all the more present, and prescient, for being unstated or unseen.

(Along with Several Friends and other shorts by Burnett, the film is currently available to stream for free as part of the Criterion Channel's Black Cinema season, as well as in a lower-quality stream on Youtube.)

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