At first glance, Charles Burnett's 13-minute short When It Rains may seem a bit low-key to be worthy of Jonathan Rosenbaum's high praise (his being damn-near the only mention you can find of the once-obscure short). But if the best short films capture something of life in narrow time-frames, Burnett's jazz-blues riff on community life surely stands as a masterful condensation of his unique blend of Ozu's stark but deliberate framing and Rossellini's neorealism.
Set on a bustling New Year's Day, When It Rains depicts a man (Ayuko Babu) attempting to help a friend pay her rent to an impatient landlord threatening to throw her and her child out if she doesn't cough up the money by that evening. The man, a musician and griot (a sort of oral historian/poet), tries to help by calling on favors from people around the community. It's a simple setup, but then Burnett never needed much to make a masterpiece.
In his narration, the griot discusses roots, both ethnic and musical. He recounts the story of someone asking him how he can combine jazz and blues music, and he responds by detailing the tribal African music that forms the foundation of both. Jazz and blues are both percussive, jazz through the drums, blues through the sharply played chords of the guitar. Artistic and ethnic pride swirl until homogeneous in Babu's speech, which has a rhythm of its own and occasionally rhymes.
Burnett is a realist, but he is also a poet, and you can see it in these shots. The cash-strapped woman finds Babu at a gathering where musicians in the community play together. A number of people play percussion, ranging from older men and women clad in the African clothing they started wearing in the '60s to youngsters wearing jeans and hoodies awkwardly using drumsticks on the hand-drums. In the crowd, a middle-aged woman dances. The more political solidarity that might be represented by the dashiki-wearing older people in the crowd has given way to artistic unity and instruction through music.
Like he did in Killer of Sheep, Burnett mixes the diegetic sound and music at about the same level, potentially obscuring some of the words. Viewing this decision through scenes as the one just described, however, we can see Burnett uniting words and song, as if to say that the black community, when in touch with its roots, can communicate in music. Music is, after all, the most primitive and fundamental form of communication.
The film itself plays as a series of musical riffs, with each person Babu consults for money adding a distinctive flavor. The woman's ex-husband, once a Black Panther and draft dodger who now wears a suit and waxes his car, flatly refuses to help, his lack of attention sounding like bass beats carrying on the rhythm and refusing to be swayed by an instrument that should be following him, not the other way 'round. Soul, a junkyard owner, offers a lighter contrast when he immediately hands over his spare cash for the day to help a sister out. The griot always makes time to have a chat with the people he's talking to, asking about kids and friends instead of just begging, and the interactions only make these staccato vignettes deeper. As if Burnett's realist credentials were ever in doubt, a scene where a woman's chat with Babu is interrupted by her kid yanking impatiently on her arm and crying to use the bathroom. As in jazz, everything is deliberately mapped out, yet there's so much room for spontaneity.
The ending beautifully ties all these threads together: the griot's haggles do not get him the money he needs, but one broke street musician hands him an old John Handy album of the saxophonist's show at the Monterey Jazz Festival (an artifact of '60s countercultural tastes released just before rock became the decade's dominant artistic expression) as a show of sympathy. When Babu heads back to the landlord in a futile effort to take what money he could scrape together, the man practically jumps out of his skin when he sees the John Handy album and accepts it in lieu of payment. (All Babu can say is, "Damn, I'm glad I didn't have a rap album in my hand.") What better way to end a film about community spirit and interactive roots than with a bit of bartering?
[Like all of Charles Burnett's work, When It Rains was a hard piece to track down, at least until Milestone released a long-overdue DVD of his magnum opus, Killer of Sheep, along with his follow-up feature My Brother's Wedding and several shorts. Despite the horrid packaging, Milestone's set unearths buried treasures like this wonderful short and gives audiences a chance to discover the man Armond White deemed "the least well-known great American filmmaker." Hey, a stopped clock is right twice a day.]
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