Fipresci Home the international federation of film critics  
  about us | festival reports | awards | undercurrent   contact | site map 
home > undercurrent > issue 1 > Several Friends  

about the writer

Andy Rector is a self-taught filmmaker and film critic living in Hollywood. He was one-half of FIPRESCI's Talent Press at the Viennale 2004.

short films

This section has been edited by Belinda van de Graaf and Adrian Martin.

 

Man's Favorite Short

 

Introduction
by Adrian Martin

"Several Friends" (Charles Burnett, 1969)
by Andy Rector

The Pain of Cinema: "Interior New York Subway" (G. W. Bitzer, 1905)
by Gabe Klinger

 

Improvised Polemic by Derek Malcolm: "LBJ" (Santiago Alvarez, 1968)

Dream Work (Peter Tscherkassky, Austria, 2001) by Adrian Martin

Short Film Poetry by Jonathan Rosenbaum: "The House Is Black" (Forugh Farrokhzad, 1962) and "When It Rains" (Charles Burnett, 1995)

 


 

"Several Friends" (Charles Burnett, 1969)
By Andy Rector

Milestone Film's eventual re-release of all of Charles Burnett's directorial efforts pre-To Sleep With Anger (1990) will hopefully right many of the wrongs done to this director. Finally Burnett won't be judged achronologically or by the compromised work for PBS, Oprah Winfrey, and Miramax. It will at last be more widely possible to evaluate his films from the extraordinary beginning of "Several Friends" (1969), and in the process fill a major gap in the history of American cinema. "Several Friends" is Burnett's first film, made while he was still a student at UCLA, and there is not a compromise to be seen in it.

Inevitably, the film will be seen as a preparatory sketch for Killer of Sheep (1973). This wouldn't be wrong, but "Several Friends" has its own glories to speak of. If the generosities are less round, and elements like its "poor" soundtrack jut out and make the film more angular, that angularity takes on an aesthetic and even a social significance here (e.g. the scene of two men conversing with a car engine between them, dubbed) unique to Burnett's practice.

A bolder, almost structuralist formal clarity can be seen at work in "Several Friends." In its relaxed spatial precision it resembles an Ozu film as much as a film of neo-realism. The first scene is incisive: a man in a military uniform stumbles in an alley as a little girl in a white dress looks on — suddenly a large white sedan enters the frame and stops, cutting the space between them. The car slices through the potential meeting, and the film itself cuts to the interior of the car, where the magnificent second scene will almost entirely take place.

Four unemployed young people inside a parked car somewhere in South Central Los Angeles are looking for something to do, and Burnett sticks with them in long duration, opting to let the goddess-like Delores Farley (from Killer of Sheep's "you about as tasteless as a carrot") narrate the consequences of an off-screen fight that is going on simultaneously outside of a liquor store. The scene unfolds, tense with the inevitability of showing their surroundings and structured by the direct sound of Delores's distinct drawl. "A confrontation should be avoided... the police will be called," she says in several variations as the driver, Charles Bracy, dips in and out of the car/frame asking if they should get wine, while another passenger, Eugene Cherry, shoots glances at the camera and smokes, and Andy Burnett (Charles's brother) reads the paper in the back seat. This introduction to the characters, a rich and exciting chunk of image/sound, builds to an exhaustion that permeates the rest of the film. The wonderful Andy Burnett is the center of the subsequent drifting events at home. He and his friends pick up and put down a number of mundane labors around the house. He flips on a record and tries to dance with a woman, the soundtrack seizing the diegesis for a moment (like the trumpet playing in To Sleep with Anger and When It Rains), but is thwarted.

Like Killer of Sheep, "Several Friends" shows the labor that's necessary at home, to literally maintain the home, but it shows it in a more lumpen sequence without the family. The actions of moving a washing machine or fixing a car engine are randomly picked up, more alienated. These are moments, tender and strange at times, of perseverance in both large and small orders, shown to be dependent on community, large and small. One wonders, however, when the car is fixed and the clothes are washed, will these youths abandon the community? It all comes back to the community in Burnett. When an outsider is introduced, a white hippie girl from "Hollyweird," she isn't accepted as a ghetto escape route, she's simply someone from another community, viewed a bit skeptically. The visual style is acutely intimate with the space of the community. Wide city/street shots are avoided, backdrops for action are plain; just bricks, sidewalk, or lawn with a few branches. Even in the liquor store scene, the street itself is cut out of the shot — simply a piece of parking lot with most of the frame taken up by the giant blank wall. Storefronts and signs of any kind are absent (the opposite of this would be John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy which came out the same year). This is a very illuminating refusal. It not only pares away the usual images of urban living, full of violent streets and imposing signage, but forces one to look at what's really there: concrete, steel, twigs, and people. "I have seldom, in a movie, seen the corner of a brick building look at once so lonely and so highly charged with sadness and fear." This quote is James Agee on The Southerner (Jean Renoir, 1945), one of Burnett's favorite films; it could easily apply (sans fear) to the fearless "Several Friends."

Andy Rector
© FIPRESCI 2006

top

 
undercurrent

issues

bullet. # 7 (1.2011)
bullet. # 6 (4.2010)
bullet. # 5 (5.2009)
bullet. # 4 (10.2008)
bullet. # 3 (11.2006)
bullet. # 2 (7.2006)
bullet. # 1 (4.2006)

 

issue # 1 4.2006

bullet. Contents
bullet. Marías on Guerín
bullet. Martin on Crowe
bullet. Fujiwara on Tsai
bullet. Klinger on Garrel
bullet. How Critics Work
bullet. Man's Favorite Short
bullet. Amengual Tribute
bullet. Leslie Shatz