WEBTAKES: Sweetgrass
Reviewed by Richard Porton

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Produced by Ilisa Barbash; cinematography by Lucien Castaing-Taylor; edited by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor; sound by Ernest Karel. Color, 101 min. Distributed by The Cinema Guild.

Employing a widescreen ratio and recorded in Dolby Digital, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s Sweetgrass is notable for being much more visually and sonically ambitious than your run-of the-mill documentary. (Although Barbash is billed as the producer and Castaing-Taylor is credited as the director or “recordist,” there’s little doubt that the film is an intensely collaborative venture.) But what is truly intriguing about Sweetgrass is its uncanny ability to evoke affinities with disparate genres—the ethnographic film, the nature documentary, avant-garde installation work, and the Hollywood Western. Without engaging in the subtle trickery which, depending on your perspective, either mars or enhances some of the more modish “postmodern” documentaries (to cite one of many recent examples, Uruphong Raksasad’s Agrarian Utopia[2009], a seemingly straightforward film on disgruntled Thai farmers, seamlessly integrates contributions from actors in key sequences), Sweetgrass breaks new ground while subtly drawing upon the work of documentary pioneers such as Jean Rouch, Robert Flaherty, and Merion C. Cooper.

The essential thrust of Barbash and Castaing-Taylor’s film is dryly summed up in a final title card: ‘In 2003, over three months and one hundred and fifty miles, the last band of sheep trailed through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains.” Yet this chronicle of several ‘penultimate’ sheep drives—shot over three years and edited from 200 hours of footage—is, despite the filmmakers’ status as “visual anthropologists” ensconced in academia, far from clinical or austere. Bleating furiously, while careening up hills and down valleys with abandon, the sheep are unquestionably the stars of Sweetgrass. Quite remarkably, the film functions as both field work and a spectacular visual and aural experience that engages the viewer’s sensoria in a truly immersive fashion. Although Sweetgrass has been termed “experimental ethnography,” an implied narrative emerges over the course of the film that corresponds to Barbash’s claim that the sheep drive elucidates both “ritual” and “history.” While it is true that the film’s rigorous brand of “observational” cinema mitigates against the inclusion of talking heads or voice-over narration that might fully explain the economic or historical factors that has made the annual trek of thousands of sheep to pasture a relic of the past, Castaing-Taylor and Barbash, despite their adherence to a somewhat purist esthetic, provide a wealth of opportunities for historical and sociological inquiry.

Sweetgrass opens with a precredits sequence that comes off as a parodic version of an Albert Bierstadt landscape painting: a picturesque swath of “Big Sky” country—pristine snowcapped mountains—segues to a forlorn, snow-encrusted pickup truck. Exemplifying the film’s clever facility for evoking the past in the midst of modernity (later in the film, a bravura long take reinforces this theme of fusing the epic residue of the past with the banal present by highlighting a procession of thousands of sheep past a Radio Shack franchise), the opening tableaux sets the stage for ingeniously edited sequences that offer glimpses of both animal and human privation.

For much of its duration, Sweetgrass keeps its distance from mere humans, while toying with anthropomorphism that never degenerates into whimsy. In a shot that is now almost legendary, the precredits sequence discussed above concludes with a passive, cud-chewing sheep staring into the camera. The effect is both hilarious and endearing; it’s almost tempting to imagine the beast winking at us and seeking our tacit approval. In a subsequent sequence, the casual brutality of nature comes to the fore as a mama sheep casually tosses away one of her less-favored newborn lambs. Without sentimentalizing the animal world, the sheep are depicted, their stupidity notwithstanding, as a surprisingly volatile mixture of innocence, venality, and irascibility.

When the sheepherders themselves achieve more prominence towards the end of the film, their emotional range proves incongruously similar to the animals they tend with affection and occasional exasperation. The grizzled, taciturn John is ostensibly more comfortable with animals than men or women. And, as the journey nears its end, the younger, garrulous Pat unleashes a scatological tirade that is one of the film’s highlights. Whining about “ornery” sheep on the phone to his mom (we’re far removed from the macho terrain of fictional cowboys played by Clark Gable and John Wayne), he excoriates the stubborn creatures as “mother fuckers” determined to make his life miserable.

Like many good documentaries, Sweetgrass blurs the boundaries between pedagogy and entertainment. It’s clear that Castaing-Taylor and Barbash, securely lodged within the tradition of observational cinema, believe in imparting information without telling viewers what to think. In an interview in Cinema Scope, Castaing-Taylor reiterates his “investment in the empirical”—a mainstay of cinéma vérité—while also affirming his belief that nonfiction cinema should provide audiences with something of the frisson available from the best fiction or poetry, promoting a “synaesthetic participation” that oscillates “back and forth, from the seemingly mythological to gritty realism.” These vertiginous changes in register probably explain why, even though Sweetgrass was rejected by every ethnographic film festival to which it was submitted, it has been embraced by critics and the public. Despite never straying into the gimmickry plaguing certain films that conflate fiction and nonfiction, this is one documentary that, despite the filmmakers’ modest claim that they’re merely “recordists,” certainly fulfills one of James Wood’s criteria for great literature: “it makes us better noticers of life.” Castaing-Taylor and Barbash’s brilliant evocation of the death pangs of an agrarian tradition allows us to hone our skills as adept “noticers” by letting us know what it meant to be a lonely laborer engaged in ancient rituals such as shearing and sheepherding and, to a certain extent, what it means to be a sheep.

Richard Porton is the editor of Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals, now available from Wallflower Press.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.