To Sleep With Anger: “the eternally youthful Charles Burnett”
The 2003 Martin Scorsese-produced HBO anthology series The Blues featured a lot of big-name directors offering their take on America’s centrally important musical genre. Yet most critics agreed that the best episode wasn’t directed by Clint Eastwood, Wim Wenders or Scorsese himself. It was the episode Warming by the Devil’s Fire, directed by Charles Burnett, whose career was at that point something of a secret handshake for film buffs. Throughout his career, Burnett has shown an affinity for blues music, and sometimes it’s given him the blues too – his extraordinary debut Killer of Sheep was out of circulation for decades due to its unauthorised music. But To Sleep With Anger, out now on Criterion, offers a look at Burnett’s musical passions in their most refined form.
To Sleep With Anger shares a rough story outline with Warming by the Devil’s Fire. Both of them are based on Burnett’s childhood memories, and they both revolve around trickster figures who bring the corrupting pleasures of the outside world – including blues music – into a tight-knit family. It’s essentially the same core idea as Pasolini’s Theorem, albeit with the sexual and supernatural elements dialed back to a subtextual level. Burnett is particularly good at hinting at the latter. You don’t need to know much about the blues to pick up on the inference when Danny Glover’s Harry Mention says his knife might be useful at a crossroads. The musical concerns of the film seep through to its most absurd element; the occasional out-of-tune trumpet recitals by a child living next door to the family home. At first, Burnett seems to be mocking his own drama with this off-key accompaniment, but the closing credits add a haunting, unexpected resolution.
Glover’s performance as the wayward houseguest is absolutely terrific, offering menace so silky even the viewer might mistake it for charm. He’s the star name, but the ensemble of character actors around him don’t strike a false note. (Repo Man fans will get a kick out of seeing Vonetta McGee and Sy Richardson – Marlene and Lite! – together again) Formally To Sleep With Anger is less obviously virtuoso than Killer of Sheep, and less glossy than The Glass Shield, the excellent, underrated neo-noir he made after this. But its simple visual style offers Burnett the chance to slip a major piece of set-up for the ending in unnoticed, and it does begin with a remarkable opening credits sequence that sets up the movie’s metaphysical concerns. A man in a pale blue suit sits calmly as his feet catch fire; the mundane and the diabolical, co-existing so comfortably that no-one is alarmed.
Criterion’s extras are less populous than they usually are, but what they lack in quantity they make up for in quality. One featurette involves Burnett giving a tour of the locations for To Sleep With Anger and Killer of Sheep, showing how deep these films’ sense of place runs. Another, Of Family and Folklore, is a more conventional talking-heads retrospective piece that shows how powerful an experience making this film was for cast and crew alike. In both, the now-74-year-old Burnett comes across as eternally youthful, still full of insight and ideas. When Jordan Peele was tapped to direct BlacKkKlansman he insisted that Spike Lee get the job himself, and it would be nice to think that Ava DuVernay or Barry Jenkins – both of whom have acknowledged the influence Killer of Sheep had on them – could throw their weight behind a big-screen return for Burnett in the future.