In the liner notes for the DVD release of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, the film critic Armond White presents the reader with the single most important question about this work: "How do we watch Killer of Sheep in the context of today's cinema?" White's great question would even be better if we cut it in half: "How do we watch Killer of Sheep?" What this question exposes is this fact: Killer of Sheep is unwatchable. We, the viewers of today, like the viewers of yesterday (or the year the film was completed, 1977), can't see this film because nothing in it is recognizable. The cinematic codes or blocks that make up the movie have no relationship outside the film itself. Nothing comes before Killer of Sheep. It is a singular event. One of a kind. Killer of Sheep stands alone.

For something to be watchable it must be the copy of something else. We recognize it because we have seen its themes, its color coding, its shot positions, and its narrative structure before. We know how to watch The Pursuit of Happyness, for example; everything in the movie is a copy of something else we have seen. The same is true of Shaft. The black detective is a cluster of codes that copy standard and black-American pulp. When Shaft talks, he says what has been said before; when he moves, he moves like others have moved before him.

The lead character in Killer of Sheep, Henry Gayle Sanders, talks and walks only like himself. His narrative reinforces nothing but itself. Each scene in the film is totally isolated: A black man kills sheep for a living; black kids play war with bricks and rubble and cardboard; the black sheep killer dances with his sad wife to a sad song by Dinah Washington; a greasy car engine sits in the middle of a living room of a black-American home. Because the films Burnett made after Killer of Sheep (one of which, My Brother's Wedding, is included in the DVD package) make little or no reference to it, Killer of Sheep will remain unrecognizable. We may never know how to watch this incredible film. recommended

New to DVD this week: I Am Cuba: The Ultimate Edition (Milestone, $44.95), Manufactured Landscapes (Zeitgeist, $29.99), The Lady Vanishes (Criterion, $39.95), Nosferatu: The Ultimate Two-Disc Edition (Kino, $29.95).