Sheep Show: Sweetgrass

Early yesterday, news broke that Eric Rohmer passed away at the age of 89. Dave Kehr has a fine obituary up at the NY Times, and I would recommend Michael J. Anderson’s essay on My Night at Maud’s and The Green Ray for an analysis of his style. The Six Moral Tales will remain his legacy, but I found his swan song, The Romance of Astree and Celadon, to be equally extraodinary. Suzi penned a lovely tribute to the recently deceased film critic Robin Wood yesterday, and who else but Eric Rohmer was the publisher of Wood’s first essay (on Psycho) for Cahiers du Cinema. Rohmer’s influence on filmmaking and criticism is incalcuable, and his art will live on as long as we value film as an art form.

Now back to the regularly scheduled sheep programming…

The first quarter viewing calendar I posted last week is off to a rousing start. Sweetgrass opened in NYC after its local premiere at the New York Film Festival, and it’s an overpoweringly tactile experience. Cinema Guild is expanding it to ten more cities through the spring, so check the schedule….now. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash recorded 200 hours of footage of two Norwegian-American sheepherders as they led their flock through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. There are no interviews and the only explanatory text appears at the end of the film before the credits roll. It is a ravishing document of a dying tradition, and one that sets its boots deep in the sheep shit as well as in the rolling plains. This is no romantic gloss of the West, but an immersion in it. Castaing-Taylor and Barbach spent two years filming in and around Big Timber, Montana, which produced a series of short films, but the feature took eight years of editing (and double foot surgery for Lucien after lugging all his equipment over the mountains).

The duo are professors in Visual Anthropology and Sensory Ethnography at Harvard, and their work has previously only been exhibited in art galleries. From Sweetgrass, it’s clear that they aim to straddle the boundary between social science and the arts, both documenting culture and reflecting upon it. There are some very artfully composed shots in Sweetgrass, of cowboys framed against the horizon and sheep inching down a mountain in extreme long-shot, that would seem to be outside of an anthropologist’s purview. In a great interview with Cinema Scope, Castaing-Taylor elaborates:

Ambiguity, or any kind of aesthetic opacity that isn’t readily translatable into the limpid clarity of expository prose, is somehow lacking for anthropologists, in their quest for “cultural meaning.”…I’m not desperate for Sweetgrass to be recuperated as a work of visual anthropology, but simply because it doesn’t tell you what it’s about, and because there aren’t that many words in it, doesn’t mean for me mean it isn’t a work of anthropology. It actually feels profoundly so to me, but maybe more a philosophical anthropology.

Castaing-Taylor is working against the grain of his profession to get at the poetry of his subjects’ existence along with the exterior that can be studied. The three subjects under their camera’s microscope here: John, an older, gentle herder; Pat, the hot-headed, younger herder; and a whole mess o’ sheep. Castaing-Taylor had placed between four and eight lavolier microphones on the men and the sheep at all times, and captured some extraordinary footage on his DV camera. Since this was filmed in 2001-2002, the image quality suffers. One often wishes he had the budget for a 35mm setup, but then the remarkable intimacy would be lost. The sound design is often stunning, however, edited by experimental musician Ernst Karel, it’s a cascade of sheep noises – their bleats, honks, skronks, and death rattles.

The only calming sounds in the film, other than the cricket-y silence of nightime, comes from John, a craggy-faced loner who speaks more to the sheep than to Pat. His voice is low and rumbly, and he rarely raises it above a whisper. In  a sequence of great beauty, he urges his “girls” not to stray out of line, repeating the phrase over and over until it sounds like a declaration of love. Filmed against the dusky night sky, it’s a scene of delicate romance.

Then there’s Pat, a younger guy on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Sick of the sleepless nights, whining sheep, bum knee and an injured dog, he calls up his mom and unleashes a torrent of complaints, which he also unleashes on the herd (he calls them “bitches” as opposed to John’s “girls”). But it’s impossible not to be sympathetic to his plight – this is an incredibly exhausting, isolating, and dangerous job. With John only talking to his animals, Pat is alone, unstable, and completely lost.

The ultimate stars, though, aside from the vistas of Montana, are the sheep. The opening shot finds one of these incurious beasts raise its head and stare directly into the camera, daring us to imagine the world within its miniscule brain.



12 Responses Sheep Show: Sweetgrass
Posted By suzidoll : January 12, 2010 1:42 pm

I did not know the link between Rohmer and Wood, with Rohmer publishing Wood’s first article. Now, they are linked again because their deaths occurred so close together.

Posted By suzidoll : January 12, 2010 1:42 pm

I did not know the link between Rohmer and Wood, with Rohmer publishing Wood’s first article. Now, they are linked again because their deaths occurred so close together.

Posted By suzidoll : January 12, 2010 1:45 pm

Forgot to add: I will definitely look for this film. I hope it plays Chicago. Thanks for this nicely written piece.

Posted By suzidoll : January 12, 2010 1:45 pm

Forgot to add: I will definitely look for this film. I hope it plays Chicago. Thanks for this nicely written piece.

Posted By morlockjeff : January 15, 2010 7:52 pm

I look forward to seeing this and think it might be less affected and weird than Carlos Reygadas’s nonetheless mesmerizing SILENT LIGHT (2007)…which is not to say it’s a documentary or about sheep but I think there is a connection.

Posted By morlockjeff : January 15, 2010 7:52 pm

I look forward to seeing this and think it might be less affected and weird than Carlos Reygadas’s nonetheless mesmerizing SILENT LIGHT (2007)…which is not to say it’s a documentary or about sheep but I think there is a connection.

Posted By keelsetter : January 17, 2010 10:43 am

I just read about this in The New Yorker and look forward to bringing it to my next calendar program. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash used to work here at the Film Studies Program here in Boulder before herding themselves off to the greener pastures of Harvard. It’s nice to see their work making the rounds. Thanks for the review!

Posted By keelsetter : January 17, 2010 10:43 am

I just read about this in The New Yorker and look forward to bringing it to my next calendar program. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash used to work here at the Film Studies Program here in Boulder before herding themselves off to the greener pastures of Harvard. It’s nice to see their work making the rounds. Thanks for the review!

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 18, 2010 11:59 pm

I can see the SILENT LIGHT connection, Jeff, as they both document dying traditions and cultures. Both use long takes quite a bit, too.

It’s great to hear you’ll be booking it, Keelsetter. I hope it has a decent theatrical run ahead of it…

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 18, 2010 11:59 pm

I can see the SILENT LIGHT connection, Jeff, as they both document dying traditions and cultures. Both use long takes quite a bit, too.

It’s great to hear you’ll be booking it, Keelsetter. I hope it has a decent theatrical run ahead of it…

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : March 2, 2010 1:32 pm

[...] was led to three of these hybrid films: Sweetgrass (which I discussed here), The Anchorage, and Agrarian Utopia, by Robert Koehler in his Cinema Scope essay, “Agrarian [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : March 2, 2010 1:32 pm

[...] was led to three of these hybrid films: Sweetgrass (which I discussed here), The Anchorage, and Agrarian Utopia, by Robert Koehler in his Cinema Scope essay, “Agrarian [...]

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