Forthcoming: To Sleep with Anger

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zedz
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Forthcoming: To Sleep with Anger

#1 Post by zedz » Tue Jul 08, 2008 7:49 pm

I know this film has some strong supporters, so I thought I'd try to start a discussion of it, having just reseen it.

On its first release, I found it really impressive, but was somewhat dissatisfied by the change of tone at the very end, finding the overall film unresolved.

Well, I'm over that now and love its slippery play with genre and tone. This could be the most oblique horror film in American cinema, but it's no less unnerving for that, with a couple of scenes sealing the creepiness in completely unexpected ways (Harry leading Babe Brother along the riverbed; the underplayed "I have to know who is in my house" confrontation in the kitchen) - and the return of the repressed is a diehard horror standby. It's also one of the most oblique comedies, with its strong vein of black, bitter humour only fully surfacing in the final fifteen minutes. Oh, and it's got one of the all-time-great credits sequences: that classical composition of Gabriel, painting, bowl of fruit slowly explored by the camera and slowly igniting with spectral fire.

Burnett shows amazing control at maintaining the film's uncanny, finely balanced mood. On the surface, it's poised between intense family drama and relaxed comedy of manners, but the undercurrent (so strong that it dominates our experience of the film, even though there's never any objective verification that this is indeed what's going on) is of supernatural horror. And there's a further, just as crucial, concern with documenting a community neglected by Hollywood filmmaking - and on this level, like Burnett's previous films, it's a complete joy.

Unlike some people, I really like the performances in Burnett's earlier features, but in this film he finds a way to unite that free observational naturalism with 'proper' (by Hollywood standards) dramatic performance, and everyone shines. Mary Alice is just superb, and Vonetta McGee steals every scene she's in, but Danny Glover carries the film, and is essential to maintaining the fine balance that characterises it. Has he ever been used this well? It's like every other film I've seen him in only accesses 30% at most of his potential. In most of his scenes his body is giving one performance (all rakish charm and bonhomie) while his eyes are giving another one, and delivering the film's dark subtext direct to our reptile brains.

The BFI disc looks to be bare bones (and OOP? - it's not on the BFI's own site). Can anybody vouch for the transfer?

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#2 Post by domino harvey » Tue Jul 08, 2008 7:58 pm

Glover's performance is one of the best I've ever seen in any film, an incredibly controlled and deliberate portrayal of a master manipulator who knows what to say and what not to say, yet has the foresight to know when to say the seemingly "wrong" thing to achieve his goals. That his character has been interpreted so many different ways to encompass so many different readings is testament to its power.

Watching the film is like witnessing an elaborate heist where the longer the film runs, the more afraid you are it will take a wrong turn, because how can it be as good as it is? From the possibly unmatched power of the opening title sequence to the palpable unease of the fish fry to the last few minutes, which seem unnecessarily extended at first but upon reflection are absolutely crucial-- this is a film that demands to be seen and appreciated by the widest possible audience.

When this get a R1 release, I expect numerous people bumping this thread in excitement. I am one of the underenthused zedz mentions with regards to Burnett's earlier work, but it's because he's capable of making dense, novelistic films such as this.

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#3 Post by zedz » Tue Jul 08, 2008 8:19 pm

domino harvey wrote:That his character has been interpreted so many different ways to encompass so many different readings is testament to its power.
How many other recent American films use ambiguity in such a powerful way without sacrificing focus or coherence?
Watching the film is like witnessing an elaborate heist where the longer the film runs, the more afraid you are it will take a wrong turn, because how can it be as good as it is?
And this effect is intensified because, as you note, the film does seem to take 'wrong' turns that subsequently turn out to be brilliantly 'right' - you can never see exactly where it's heading because it's so good at misdirection. I think of the scene with Harry and Babe Brother in the riverbed like that: it looks like the film is finally coming off the fence and settling for an explanatory, supernatural identity (the odd setting, the flying bird and the dead bird, the covert threat, the interrupting voice), but then it manoeuvres itself away from the edge without losing any of the unsettling residue of that scene. Same with the shift into comedy, even farce, at the end: it doesn't sell out what's gone before, but builds on it to create a much richer picture of those characters and that situation.

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#4 Post by vivahawks » Wed Jul 09, 2008 2:52 pm

Seems like I saw the flipside of what you guys praised in this. I do like it for the performances (in addition to those already praised, Carl Lumbly is particularly good as the "good" brother who's also a bit of a jackass) and richness of detail, but all the "wrong turns" and wandering tone seemed like a lack of control on Burnett's part and to be at odds with the basic parable-like form. I think whether people love this will depend on whether they feel that all those shifts do end up balancing the mood or not, as zedz says.

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#5 Post by zedz » Wed Jul 09, 2008 5:27 pm

vivahawks wrote:. . . but all the "wrong turns" and wandering tone seemed like a lack of control on Burnett's part and to be at odds with the basic parable-like form.
That's very similar to my initial reaction way back when, so I know what you mean, but second time around the elements seemed much better resolved. I think knowing where the film was not going helped me appreciate the way the disparate aspects of it worked together. (i.e. hope it works for you next time)

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#6 Post by HerrSchreck » Wed Jul 09, 2008 6:31 pm

Classic example of a film that gets better upon revisiting.. whereby the text gets better/more fulfilling after the plot has been gotten out of the way (re "How Dare You Spoil The PLot of a 76 Yr Old Film!)"

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#7 Post by Murdoch » Sun Jan 03, 2010 1:33 am

I'm going to try to avoid a bunch of superlatives with this post, but this is the best American movie of the 90s that I've seen. Glover's menacing performance is made even more so by the film's editing, which always cuts away from Glover before lingering too long on him so as not to reveal anything. He often seems likes a specter, haunting this family, roaming the periphery until he asserts himself into the center of the film again. With the ambiguity Harry is cast in you're never sure what to make of him, yet Burnett allows glimpses into the character's past so as to hint at an underlying sadism.
SpoilerShow
Most hauntingly during the dinner scene where Harry shies away from accusations of murder. But the most exemplary scene of Harry's manipulation is when he subtly manages to draw Gideon's sons and wife away from the ailing Gideon on the couch and to aid him.
As for his death, at first I thought Harry was intentionally stepping onto the marble in a last-ditch effort to win the family over again, and his death was poetic justice in full fruition. Now, however, I'm not sure what to make of it, I'll have to let it sit for a while.
Outside of Glover's performance, what I found so great about this film is how indebted to the past it is without becoming reliant on it to move the story along. This is a movie which both embraces and critiques the Old South, the characters do not exist in a vacuum and the Old South experienced by them is a fundamental part of their past and present. Rarely before have I seen a film that so gracefully embraces the past while also remaining critical of it. It's interesting the clash that occurs in the film between the Old and New worlds that the characters inhabit(ed), and Babe Brother being drawn toward the Old South by Harry suggests a sort of mystical view of the past, or at least the draw of it for someone disenfranchised by the present.
SpoilerShow
Babe Brother says how he had a internal struggle while Harry manipulated him, and I think the film works well as a broader view of that, the two worlds colliding and in the end the New winning out.
Last edited by Murdoch on Fri Sep 23, 2011 2:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#8 Post by zedz » Mon Jan 04, 2010 5:22 pm

One more fan! We're going to be into double digits in about ten years.

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#9 Post by Peacock » Mon Jan 04, 2010 7:22 pm

Add me to the list too!
I just hope My Brother's Wedding is as good...

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#10 Post by jsteffe » Mon Jan 04, 2010 8:08 pm

Count me as a fan, too! The last time I saw this film was its initial theatrical release, but I still recall being impressed by its thoughtfulness and subtlety, and by Glover's superb performance. I think it's a more mature and accomplished film than KILLER OF SHEEP, though I still like the older film a great deal. This is at the very top of my list of American independent films that need a DVD/Blu-ray release stateside.

I need to see the out-of-print BFI DVD at some point, but I'm sure it's every bit as good as I remember it!

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#11 Post by tartarlamb » Tue Jan 05, 2010 11:52 am

Another fan here. Who knew Danny Glover had such chops? He easily outclasses the rest of the cast, in such a way that his magnetism keeps the rest of the film in his orbit even when he's off screen. Just a quick thought:
Murdoch wrote:
SpoilerShow
As for his death, at first I thought Harry was intentionally stepping onto the marble in a last-ditch effort to win the family over again, and his death was poetic justice in full fruition. Now, however, I'm not sure what to make of it, I'll have to let it sit for a while.
SpoilerShow
I don't think it was intentional. It was foreshadowed pretty early on with the broom knocking over the bucket, and with the child touching Harry with the broom. I think there's a hopeful generational note here -- Harry is visibly uncomfortable around children. If you recall one of the many masterfully underplayed and chilling scenes when Harry has to sneak out of his room to avoid the child sweeping, its a bit more clear. The child next door with the trumpet also upsets Harry's attempt to hypnotize and slaughter the chicken.

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#12 Post by drdoros » Tue Jan 05, 2010 8:31 pm

Well, obviously I'm a fan of just about everything Charles has done and do love TSWA. I'd suggest that those who haven't seen NIGHTJOHN would be in for a treat. It is one of his best, though a much different kind of film.

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#13 Post by lady wakasa » Wed Jan 06, 2010 12:03 am

I saw it in theatrical released and loved it too; went out and bought - I think it was the laserdisc? - for my father as a gift. I usually only buy DVDs that I think won't be available long-term, but I'd make an exception for this.

Excellent, excellent movie. And I didn't make the link between this and Killer of Sheep (well, there was a 20-year gap in there).

(Hi, Dennis - hope all is well...)

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#14 Post by colinr0380 » Sun Sep 18, 2011 11:56 am

Watching the film again for the first time in a couple of years I was reminded of how much I liked the sense of ambiguity I was left with at the end. The film is obviously much more sympathetic to the family and Glover gives, as described above, a wonderful, devilishly charming performance throughout, often accompanied by threatening imagery.
Murdoch wrote:
tatarlamb wrote:
SpoilerShow
As for his death, at first I thought Harry was intentionally stepping onto the marble in a last-ditch effort to win the family over again, and his death was poetic justice in full fruition. Now, however, I'm not sure what to make of it, I'll have to let it sit for a while.
SpoilerShow
I don't think it was intentional. It was foreshadowed pretty early on with the broom knocking over the bucket, and with the child touching Harry with the broom. I think there's a hopeful generational note here -- Harry is visibly uncomfortable around children. If you recall one of the many masterfully underplayed and chilling scenes when Harry has to sneak out of his room to avoid the child sweeping, its a bit more clear. The child next door with the trumpet also upsets Harry's attempt to hypnotize and slaughter the chicken.
Suzie: "Harry, one can sure tell you are from back home. Nowadays, people don't even know what good manners are"

Harry: "You had to know how to act right where we come from. You had to know when to say yes sir, no sir. You had to know your place."

Suzie:"That's right. In those days you could always find something redeemable in the very worst person."
Suzie: "Are you a friend, Harry?"

Harry: "Take that boy next door, playing his horn. If he was a friend, he would stop irritating people. But if he stops practicing, he wouldn't be perfect at what he does"
I think the whole film is captured in those two scenes quoted above. I especially like the "I have to know who is in my house"/"You invited me" exchange that takes place just before the second quote, which feels a little like it could come from a vampire film!

I think tartarlamb's description of the end is great, though I was also left with the feeling that it is sort of a sacrifice that the family (or more properly the children of the family in an unconscious manner, who despite that act as observers throughout, while the adults are too trapped in the material world to be able to properly understand Harry's influence) have to make to rid an 'evil spirit' from their house, which has been repressing the rest of the family (and the boy next door!*)

Yet it also feels as if the family are also using the 'temptation' that Glover's character represents to try and escape from the somewhat restrictive confines of domestic life (making it a kind of conterpoint to all of those films where a magical neighbour appears and expands a community's horizons - Michael, Hearts In Atlantis etc). Baby Brother is of course the major focus of this, maybe falling under Harry's unreligious, free spirit influence which inspires him to almost abandon his family, his wife and his son.

But there is also the idea that all of these issues were present long before Harry arrived, looking for an inspiration. While the film seems to be much more moving towards the way that Harry seems to be a malign influence, such as the way in the early part of the film he seems to be insidiously feeling out each of the family members for their particular weak points that can later be capitalised on, it also seems to be something within each family member that is responding to his presence as well. The father taking ill can be seen as another form of abdication of responsibility, albeit an unintended one, but also the way that Junior is inspired to become a rather unbalanced patriarch himself feels like the opposite extreme of being too controlling can lead to violence.

There's an obvious religious metaphor throughout and those scenes between Harry and Vonetta McGee's Pat (as someone who has previously had close ties with Harry but who after moving to L.A. has been 'saved') get the closest to a battle between 'good' and 'evil', though it never feels that simple, instead more as if they are taking on such roles partly playfully and partly with deadly seriousness in order to define who the other person is in their eyes.

All this actually makes me feel more for Harry than for any other character in the film - that he in some mysterious way ends up embodying everything that is going wrong inside that family into one easily disposable person. Everyone else is able to be saved, and gets a moral lesson in the path not to take and a fresh start, but Harry was considered irredeemable from the start by almost everyone.

I was left thinking that this is also all tied up in questions of why the family (and a lot of family friends judging by the gatherings) made the move to L.A.? To escape their extended family which would have brought up similar tensions that Harry does, and to make a new start in a 'less respectful' L.A.? To keep the past on the mantlepiece, where it untroublingly belongs and move into a more successful, urbanised future? I suppose it is ironic therefore that it is only Harry's body which is occupying a doorway at the time of the earthquake near the end of the film (and I like the way that Harry is continually juxtaposed with that kitchen doorway throughout the film)

But of course the beauty of the film is that it always stays within the structure of a family drama, never taking that final turn into supernatural horror (for instance I particularly like the way that one of the brother's pregnant wives never has anything happen to the baby more than having it kick a couple of times when she first goes to shake Harry's hand, something which plays against conventional 'supernatural' expectations.)


*The boy next door, who triumphantly manages to play the trumpet over the end credits, which also seems to capture both points of view - he can finally play now that the 'evil, repressing spirit' is gone, yet he also validates Harry's talk of 'irritating until you become perfect at what you do'.
Last edited by colinr0380 on Sun Sep 18, 2011 1:28 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#15 Post by onedimension » Sun Sep 18, 2011 12:20 pm

The film is available on Amazon as a download ("Instant Video" or whatever they're calling it) for 9.99 - no excuses now for not seeing it.

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#16 Post by stroszeck » Sun Sep 18, 2011 2:17 pm

For 9.99 I would at least appreciate a hard-copy barebones DVD...

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#17 Post by Adam » Thu Dec 08, 2011 8:41 pm

I saw it last night at the UCLA Film & TV Archives, with a brand new print off the original negative, and Burnett, the editor the DP, and the producers (including Ed Pressman) all in person. It is really great, and beautiful. (Shot on AGFA stock).
One of the producers went through some of the production history. It was made by a company that was straight-to-video generally that wanted to upgrade. Sony acquired it somewhere along the way, but only last year dd Sony realize/acknowledge that they did own the rights to it. So they do have the elements, and made this new print, and perhaps there will be movement on a proper DVD.

The film itself is really a thing until itself. I'm having trouble of thinking of anything like it from the 80s or the 90s.
Last edited by Adam on Fri Dec 09, 2011 12:04 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#18 Post by onedimension » Thu Dec 08, 2011 10:17 pm

A Criterion blu would justify a dozen "Tiny Furniture"s

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#19 Post by beamish13 » Fri Dec 09, 2011 12:54 am

I was at that screening, too. The answer print we saw was indeed stunning. Burnett mentioned that he'd just come back from Algeria, so I wonder if he's working on a project down there (I saw his film NAMIBIA: THE STRUGGLE FOR LIBERATION at the Hammer several years ago; such a shame that it never got distributed in the States!). Anyway, if you get a chance to see this print, please do. Sony, Universal and MGM are the only U.S. studios keeping their repertory screening divisions alive and it's important to support them.

Can't wait to see Burnett's THE ANNIHILATION OF FISH on Sunday!

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#20 Post by domino harvey » Thu Jul 31, 2014 12:36 am

This is available to buy streaming in HD on Amazon and the licensee is listed as "Samuel Goldwyn"-- does this mean Warners owns it now?

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, 1990)

#21 Post by knives » Thu Jul 31, 2014 12:43 am

It would have to.

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990)

#22 Post by beamish13 » Sat Aug 02, 2014 6:16 pm

This film is not owned by WB, which they confirmed on their Facebook page. Sony/Columbia is still the distributor, which makes
me optimistic for an eventual release by Criterion.

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Re: To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990)

#23 Post by hearthesilence » Sun Aug 10, 2014 1:52 pm

I was able to catch a screening of this at MoMA during a Burnett retrospective a few years back - good print but the soundtrack had issues, and you heard it in the upper frequencies. I think it was some kind of distortion, but I remember being a little disappointed that the sound could have those issues when the print looked excellent.


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Re: To Sleep with Anger

#25 Post by domino harvey » Thu Jul 28, 2016 4:06 pm

Why in the world was this moved to the BFI subforum when the DVD has been OOP for like ten years?

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