I remember when a professor in college showed me Killer of Sheep. I’ve seen it a lot since then. It’s one of those movies whose images just stay with you, but also whose mood – both oppressive and sleepily happy – seeps into your brain. Charles Burnett’s third feature, To Sleep With Anger, is far more traditionally narrative, but the poetry is still there, now just hiding in plain sight.
You can’t talk about To Sleep With Anger without the prologue. Gideon (Paul Butler) sits in coat, tie, and hat. Burnett frames the low angle wide-shot as exceedingly sparse and plain. That, alongside Gideon’s no-reaction brings us right into some kind of metaphorical space:
The camera pans from that close-up to the picture on the wall, to a bowl of fruit, and back to Gideon, still looking impassively off-camera:
The camera is so deliberate. There’s a feeling of a painted still-life, of two generations connected by the earth. I think it’s no accident that man and woman have a similar posture, hat, and eyeline. Maybe Burnett’s telling us that little has changed.
But then things do change. The fruit burns. The table burns. Gideon’s feet burn. Even Gideon’s chest burns:
Gideon gives a small look at the flames below him. Was he just waiting for this moment? And Burnett graphic matches from his burning feet to a “different” Gideon – the real one for the film, let’s say – in his bare feet, holding a bible, and looking out past us in a totally different setting:
There are definitely other connections that can be made here – the flames of hell and the bible; a formal interior vs. a natural exterior. Is that first Gideon dressed for church, or is he dressed the way Danny Glover’s Harry does (in perhaps Glover’s best performance) later in the film?
Regardless, it’s a mysterious, beautiful opening, and it brings us into the airy world of the film, set in the south, where Harry comes from LA and intrudes on his old acquaintances, gradually disintegrating some bonds.
The film is indeed airy (I’ll always think of the boy trying to play his trumpet), but sometimes Burnett makes it feel so much tighter. Consider two party sequences throughout the film. The first one below is a still from Gideon’s house, the other one is from Harry’s space:
I love the lensing of the latter. It feels so warped and uncomfortable, much also to do with that yellow lighting. The first still at least hints at an outside, or other space.
At one point in the film Gideon and Harry walk the railroad tracks. in the beautiful dusk light. When Gideon looks up he sees a gang of workers on the tracks:
It’s ghostly, a tie to the men’s perhaps shared past – or maybe just their heritage – and again recalls that beginning. There’s something in To Sleep With Anger about how the past always hovers nearby, though it’s never fully whole.
On the surface To Sleep With Anger could just be a family drama, but Burnett fills it with so many of these nuances that it’s so much more.