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The Art of Patience

What links a neorealist drama set in Watts and a dreamlike look at Taiwanese dance?

By Dorothy Woodend 12 Feb 2018 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film and culture for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

Patience is a virtue.

In mainstream film, audiences are not often asked to practise patience. Unless one hangs out in the world of observational documentary or art house cinema, most movies are scripted to provide a dopamine hit, with near-feverish intensity, banging away on the emotive drums of the limbic system until it is little more than a pulp.

But patience is an interesting thing, containing rewards that are not always immediately visible.

Two different masterworks hammered this idea home this past week with the force of a sledgehammer.

Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Legend Lin Dance Theatre’s The Eternal Tides are very different creatures. One is a neorealist drama made in 1977, and the other is a contemporary Taiwanese choreographic work. What do they have in common, you may ask?

Well, I will tell you. Be patient!

That’s it, actually.

Both film and dance share a dedication to the unseen currents that direct the ebb and flow of human life, pooling and spilling, surging up, eddying down, moving with irrevocable force to some unknown place.

Both also require patience.

Of the two, The Eternal Tides is more overt in its demands on an audience. From the work’s opening sequence, in which two dagu drummers emerge from the wings of the theatre, each bearing a flame, things take their sweet time. The musicians assume their positions and, for a long moment, nothing happens.

You can almost feel your brain blink and rub its eyes, wondering, “Where is the action? What is happening?” Anticipation is a cruel mistress, a mixture of pain and pleasure. As the broad panels of white silk that grace the stage are slowly, ever so slowly, drawn up and away, what is revealed is a tiny slip of a woman, her body powdered white, her hair a black shroud.

The opening 26-minute solo performance is a testimony to the power of human endurance as the dancer, in the centre of the stage, twists and writhes, lashing the ground with her hair in endless sweeping circles as the drums thunder and roar. Sacrifice, pain and the will to keep going in the face of exhaustion and suffering end in an agonized scream. Every nerve ending you have may spontaneously explode at this point. It is both terrifying and glorious.

I don’t think I have ever felt actively afraid in a dance performance before, not simply because of the visual motifs of white skin and long black hair that recall Japanese horror films like Ringu or The Grudge, but more the sense that you have been removed from the ordinary world and taken somewhere else for a time.

Time being the operative word.

The Eternal Tides uses the medium of time, manipulating it, torturing it in honey-slow movement that flows across the stage at a glacial pace. At points, it is practically unbearable. As the dancers, their spines curved in supine arcs, inch forward, you may be tempted to scream yourself, merely to release some tension. But gradually, something strange begins to happen. The slower things go, the more riveting they become. One foot, placed with mathematical precision in front of the other, becomes a form of epic drama.

But there is much more than just slowness on display.

The piece is marked with moments of erotic heat, acts of ritualistic violence, and even humour. In one sequence, a cockfight between rival gangs of men breaks out. As the dancers circle and shout, brandishing what appears to be large feather dusters with which they do battle, a certain air of the ridiculous invades the action. But even that morphs from silly to horrifying as the men brutalize each other, leaving one soul, moaning and crying at the front of the stage, beaten into a posture of submission.

Weirdly enough, something similar happens in Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep that similarly explores the brutalizing rhythms of poverty and the grace of human endurance.

Killer of Sheep starts with a slap and a lullaby. Violence, pain and beauty are all mixed up together into something that approaches a visual poem. “Start learning what life is about, now, son,” says an older man to a teenage boy, who looks like he trying hard not to blubber out loud.

This sequence establishes the tone for the action that follows. Set in a rough section of the Watts neighbourhood in Los Angeles, Killer of Sheep follows a slaughterhouse worker named Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), his sad wife (Kaysee Moore), teenage son (Jack Drummond) and young daughter (Angela Burnett, the filmmaker’s niece).

Burnett made the film as his thesis project for UCLA, shooting on weekends over three years with a largely amateur cast of performers. Filmed in lustrous 16mm, and featuring a soundtrack of American standards from Paul Robeson, Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington and Earth, Wind and Fire, the film has been largely unavailable due to complications with the music rights. (Burnett did not have the money to pay for them.)

It was only the financial intervention of fellow filmmakers, including Steven Soderbergh, that enabled the film’s restoration and re-release.

It is Stan, who anchors the story, moving through his days, trying to maintain a sense of shabby dignity in the face of humiliations, both big and small. With his heart-shaped bald spot and sad eyes, his opening statement, “I feel like I’m in my own hell,” seems not far from the truth.

Episodic in nature, each scene in the film unfolds like a string of pearls. Individually lustrous, they are more than enough, but joined together they form something greater, and ultimately more moving. As people flow in and out of each other’s lives, certain images endure — a little girl in a plastic dog mask, hanging off a chain link fence, her fingers in her mouth. Or a sequence that features teenage boys leaping between buildings, as lithe and long-limbed as mountain goats.

The debt other American filmmakers owe Burnett, Sean Baker in particular with his film The Florida Project and its chaotic, rambling kids roaring around the cityscape, finding and causing trouble, is readily apparent. But Burnett was also making his film when there were no other filmmakers doing anything similar. Sui generis doesn’t quite do it justice.

The music in the film plays a starring role, whether it is acting in perverse counterpoint to the action or adding emotional freight and heft. Paul Robeson singing in basso profundo “The House I Live In” is set against a scene of young boys hanging out in a vacant lot, hucking rocks at the bare dirt. In another sequence, the gorgeous swell of “This Bitter Earth” accompanies Stan dancing, bare-chested, with his wife in their living room. As she kneads his shoulder, the raw ache of desire almost takes your breath away.

The getting of money runs like a through line in everyone’s life. “I need some money!” Stan’s teenage son yells at his little sister while shoving sugary cereal into his mouth. Old men trying to cash cheques at the local liquor store provide an object lesson in oppression.

The men hang out in the back alley, talking about their plans to get ahead, and dissing some guy named Walter, who is apparently having a harder time than anyone else or, as Stan describes it, “nothing but a coat on, rubbing their knees all day, eating nothing but wild greens, picked out of a vacant lot. That ain’t me.”

But Stan’s efforts are thwarted by bad decisions and plain old bad luck. Nothing works like it’s supposed to — things break, fall apart or simply don’t work. All the while, the constant drip of poverty, like a leaky faucet, keeps tapping away in the background.

Whether it’s an assembly line of factory workers methodically dismembering sheep carcasses, or boys in the street being chased by stray dogs, the choreographed nature of the drama moves with searing clarity and precision. In this fashion, Killer of Sheep is as carefully and exquisitely structured as The Eternal Tides. Both share a faith in the resilience of human beings and the redemptive grace of simply continuing on. It is a slender bit of green hope, present in the gentle moments between Stan and his wife, or the careful placement of black stones on white silk in the closing moments of The Eternal Tides.

It may take a while to get there, but patience is its own reward.  [Tyee]

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