Sweetgrass (2009)

The first time I was in Ireland, I was 14 years old, it was spring, and the green hills were covered with baby lambs. They stood on an almost vertical incline, their little black hooves digging into the grass, and then occasionally, as one, they would all start leaping and bounding up and down the slopes in a great white flood. I was in love with those sheep, and wanted to hold one so badly my arms ached. They were so cute, and they were everywhere. My diary entries from that time are filled with commentary about what people in Ireland wore, how bored I was with seeing yet another ruined abbey, and also how much I loved sheep.

The sheep in Sweetgrass, the documentary directed by husband and wife team Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, brought back those old memories, but the sheep here, clambering over a mountain pass, and charging down an empty street, are not quite the cute fluffy little beings of my adolescent memory. They are a mass to be reckoned with, a querulous LOUD crowd, and wrestling them into formation takes constant maintenance and hard work.

The tagline of the film is “The Last Ride of the American Cowboy”, but unless you know the backstory, the film does not hand it to you, until the text shown on the screen at the very end. This is a documentary with no voiceover, no talking heads to provide context, and very little dialogue from the main players that explain what they are doing. What they are doing is driving the sheep up over the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for the last time. It is the end of an era, certainly, but also the end of a culture, a way of life. What we are seeing is now defunct. There is great sadness in this, but the film resists reminding us of this over and over. It doesn’t remind us of it at all, except for the tagline and the final text. That is all of the context we get. This is a brave move on the part of the filmmakers (neither of whom take directing-credit for Sweetgrass, which shows their collaborative mindset), and makes for a beautiful and sometimes-boring film, which to my mind is just right. This work takes place in a breathtakingly beautiful landscape, which we in the audience get to ogle at, but the cowboys take for granted. (There is one unforgettable scene when one of the younger cowboys, Pat Connolly, in the middle of having a rough day on top of one of those mountains – his dog’s feet are sore, the sheep are ornery, his knee is messed up – calls his mother from his cell phone and pours out his desperation and frustration at his current situation. One of the things he says is, “I want to look at these mountains and love them, Mom, but right now I don’t love them. I hate them.” It is a very open moment from a tough man who is at the end of his rope. He calls his mother, for instance. The contrast is very touching.)

The final drive over this federal land was in 2003, and Sweetgrass was filmed over a 2 year period – 2001-2003, detailing those last drives. Lucien Castaing-Taylor did the filming, and there are some unforgettable shots: a mountain slope with what looks like white rocks spilling down the side from a distance, and as he slowly zooms in, we see it is the line of sheep. A full moon floats in an inky sky, cross-hatched by a pine tree in front of it. A horse stands in silhouette against a cold sunset. And the sheep themselves. We see them from a distance, stretching across a mountain field, but there are other shots, amazing in their intimacy, where we are put right in the middle of a herd, as it shuffles along a path, or tries to get past a pointy stick in its way, or clomps across a rushing river. Castaing-Taylor’s camera is so close we stop differentiating between individual sheep, and just see body parts, rushing by, hooves, marked ears, rough wet flanks. Sometimes, comically, the sheep stop and stare directly at the camera. Wouldn’t you? They stare, and their gaze is incomprehensible, and was part of what drew me to them as a kid back in Ireland. They look so cuddly, but their faces are so blank, so odd, with wall-eyes and jutting snouts, and boy, do they make a terrible racket. I watched the cowboys dealing with this screaming herd for days on end, and wondered how they stood that sound.

What you leave in and what you leave out of a movie of this kind is of the utmost importance. How you cut a scene is how you tell your story, and when you’re talking about documentaries, that often brings us into touchy moral and ethical dilemmas. Of course, if you are observing something, it changes (physics has taught us that). There is no such thing as “objective reality”, because, when you get right down to it, a filmmaker decides where to put his camera, what to film, and then, in the editing room decides what to scrap and what to highlight. Choices are made every step of the way. How many times have we heard people who appeared on some reality TV show say, “It wasn’t anything like that – they edited me to look meaner than I was.” I have no doubt that that is true. If you filmed me just sitting in my chair, staring at my laptop screen, I could look rather stern, rather humorless, because I am privately engaged in something that excludes everyone else. But if you take that shot of me staring stonily at my laptop screen, and then insert it into another scene where a bunch of friends are sitting around talking – then it will make it seem like I am a bitch, judging all of the participants silently, when none of it went down that way. I know people who edit reality TV shows. This is how it is done. You play up the story you want to play up, so that people will keep tuning in. Reality TV is not meant to be a documentary, but when you are filming something supposedly real, these questions will always come up. What story are we telling here?

Some documentaries work as exposes, or propaganda for a certain cause. And some, rarer ones, show us a way of life without inserting a “here is what you should be feeling” moral. It is difficult for filmmakers to X themselves out of a “point”, but that is not a problem for the duo here, both of them visual anthropologists, and so their “point” really is to show us what it is like for these cowboys, and to give us a glimpse of what that way of life has been like for a century or more, and, yes, if you are so inclined, to mourn that which has passed. But the mourning is totally up to the viewer. The film does not insist that you feel one particular way about its topic, and that is a testament to Barbash Castaing-Taylor’s confidence in their subject.

I said the film was sometimes boring. I don’t think that’s a fault. I think it is an accurate depiction of the backbreaking, monotonous (with sudden charges of unexpected events, like grizzly bears), and sometimes-perilous work done by these men (and women as well. I loved the young cowgirl, maybe 16, 17 years old, following the sheep along the river on horseback, and saying to herself, frustrated by the recalcitrant sheep, “I got to get back home. I got some animals to take care of.”). Shots play out with no cuts. There’s a long section where we watch John Ahern, the head of the sheep drive, saddle his horse. He is not a young man, and clearly has some problems with breathing, and so he takes his sweet time saddling that horse. No need to rush. The sheep aren’t going anywhere. Instead of cutting away from this action, the film watches the entire thing. It lasts about 5 minutes, the saddling of that horse. This kind of thing can get frustrating, but I would chalk that up to a problem with attention-span, rather than a problem with the material. One of the things I loved so much about Sweetgrass was its gentle unspoken insistence that I slow down to THEIR pace. This is the entryway into that world, with its reliance upon natural forces and daylight and sundown. There are other sequences with a lot happening, the sheep being herded into a corral, and then the birthing of some lambs. We see the baby lambs in a pigpile, covered in placenta, and the unsentimental way the cowboy throws them around is startling at first, but again, it’s a look at how these things are done. I appreciate that. The scenes of shearing are rather brutal, something I have never seen before, and you see the sheep’s face, again with that odd blankness, as it submits to the shearing, blankly, not understanding, but enduring. This is a business. The sheep are important. They have to be taken care of from cradle to grave. Threats from wolves and grizzly bears are omnipresent, and the sheep dogs also have to be handled. Some of them are good at their jobs, others not so much. All of this is under the cowboy’s jurisdiction. All of it is important.

These guys are problem-solvers. There’s a sequence where three of them put up a tent for the night, and they cooperate and work together. They sometimes talk to each other, telling jokes, or, in one moving sequence, exclaim with delight over an arrowhead found in a field. I liked these guys. This is hard work. There is a memorable moment when Pat Connolly bitches out the herd of sheep in a raging profanity-filled monologue that pours out of him in an unstoppable flood. His language makes the language in Good Fellas sound tame. The sheep are “cocksuckers” and “cunts” and “whores”, and he lets them have a huge piece of his mind. It is a strength of the film that by that point, having spent over an hour with these sheep, and seeing how difficult the job is, I sympathized with him entirely, and “Why are you yelling at the cute fluffy little sheep, you mean mean man?” never once entered my mind.

Some of the video quality of the closeup scenes is disappointingly cheap-looking, in severe contrast to the sweeping grandeur of the landscape scenes. They seem to be from two different movies. The opening sequence of the sheep standing still in a field on a dark windy day is haunting, beautiful, a work of art really, and it’s a shame that all of the film couldn’t have looked like that. But Sweetgrass remains an oddly emotional piece of work. I went into it not knowing the details of the sheep drives, and not knowing the elegiac tone underlying the whole film. By the time the simple text came up at the very end of the film, the first time we are told what we have been looking at, I felt a sudden deep pang of sadness.

Sweetgrass is a profound experience.

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2 Responses to Sweetgrass (2009)

  1. Jason Bellamy says:

    Glad you got a chance to see this. I’m convinced that if this had been shot in HD, it would have become more mainstream. Even with the appropriate amounts of tediousness. I saw this months ago, just once, and I can remember shot after shot as if I saw it yesterday. Sneaky powerful.

  2. sheila says:

    Jason – yes, some of the shots (or most of them) are so memorable. And they linger so long that they end up just landing. The film has tremendous reverb. I really loved it.

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