16 January 2011

MOVIES I MISSED IN 2010: BIG SKY COUNTRY

The sheep is going on about its business with sheeply detachment, gnawing on a tuft of grass, when it notices the camera. As it must do, for the camera has been watching the sheep from no particularly great distance for many seconds; still, you do not fault a sheep of all creatures for being slow to react. Still, this one seems to possess some spark of deeper intelligence, for as it fixes the camera with its gazes, one can almost read its thoughts: a little confusion and a little alarm, and yet the dominant feeling, as it glares unblinkingly, is that the sheep is challenging us, peeved more than anything at this unexpected and uninvited familiarity.

This captivating moment comes within the first minutes of Sweetgrass, a documentary of uncommon elegance and abstract expression. No talking heads or informative title cards here: married filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (the former the producer, the latter the videographer) simply drop us into the middle of a Montana sheep ranch in the spring and a drive into the mountains and back in the summer, filming the actions of the humans and animals there with uncompromising intimacy, and a frankly radical lack of context. Not more than a half-dozen sentences are the directed towards the camera by any of the on-screen humans for the entire film; and those sentences are not meant to give us an encyclopedic idea of how ranching functions, but to communicate immediate, short-term information ("The bear came over that ridge", pointing).

Barbash and Castaing-Taylor both work in anthropology at Harvard, so it's not altogether shocking that Sweetgrass has the general aura of an ethnography. That's a word that usually conjures up thoughts of Robert J. Flaherty cavorting amongst Tahitians wearing the smallest amount the pre-code censors would permit to sneak in under the "documentary" fig leaf, not grizzled old white men in cowboy hats looking past their flocks with thousand-yard stares, and it's not the smallest gauntlet that the filmmakers throw down to suggest that life in the Rockies can be just as alien and exotic as anyplace else in the world.

And so, much of the film's appeal lies in the mere act of following these workers through the acts of shearing sheep, birthing sheep (the film wrings an absurd amount of tension out of a single-shot scene of a ewe cautiously approaching the pen where her newborn lamb is resting: will she go in? or does the handler holding open the gate spook her too much?), running sheep up the mountain, trying to figure out where the predator is hiding that keeps terrorising the sheep. Castaing-Taylor's camera is unmistakably present, at times jerkily handheld, often marked by spots of dirt on the lens; and also totally invisible, as he just sits among the sheep, recording them at their level, or watching the shepherds go about their business, too occupied by all the countless little actions they must perform to spare much time for the cameraman in their midst. It's really quite triumphant how much he's able to dig in and become part of the world in which the animals and their keepers reside, an act of embedding the equal to any reporter cowering with soldiers in a war zone. And in the moments when Castaing-Taylor steps back, showcasing his subjects in their proper context against the holy grandeur of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Sweetgrass reaches levels of visual excellence that should simply not be possible of anything shot on consumer-grade video.

Yet even in such moments of poetic sublimity (and while I feel like a hack for using that word, "poetic", I can't think of a word that more perfectly describes Sweetgrass, not just in its tone but in the dislocated, rhythmic flow from shot to shot), the film never stoops to romanticism or postcard-ready nostalgia for the twilight of the American West. What always impresses about the movie is its here-and-nowness, completely aligning its awareness with that of the two featured shepherds, John Ahern and Pat Connolly, who despite never even being clearly named in the film emerge as two of the most robust personalities in film in the past year. They do not make special allowances for the camera, and the camera respectfully answers by not treating them as anything other than what they are, two men doing a job that they surely do not find terribly romantic or mythic (one of the film's great moments listens in as Connolly, on a radio microphone, hurls invective at the sheep, the landscape, life, while the camera quietly watches from across a valley; in another, Ahern responds to his friend's question about what he'll do with the season over by offhandedly supposing that he'll worry about it next week).

It's so profoundly, awesomely simple; and while the filmmakers do not exaggerate that simplicity, there is nothing simple about Sweetgrass itself. Filmed entirely between 2001 and 2003, with the bulk of the 200 hours of footage coming from the first summer, the film took the better part of a decade to put together not only because of the sheer glut of material to comb through, but to make sure that they got it exactly right. And if the film suffers as a strictly accurate documentary from compressing and re-arranging chronology, it is very much an exemplar of what Werner Herzog calls "ecstatic truth", the idea that things can be more emotionally and artistically real without being slavishly honest. By all means, Sweetgrass is an ecstatic film: the movement from one moment to another, with its light implications of a story, is always concerned with the contrast between the great and the small, between animal and man and nature, not as a matter of conflict but as a matter of appreciating all the elements of the environment more out of amazement for how well they fit together.

The most ecstatic of all, however, is almost certainly the film's incredible soundtrack: a transporting collage of gusting wind, the dull thomp of boots on dirt, and the clatter of hoofs and bells, of human speech that at times sinks so far into the ambient noise that it becomes as abstract as the sheeps' bleating. It's rather breathlessly described in the filmmakers' statement on the work as:
"[Evoking] at once the attractions and the ambivalence of the pastoral by juxtaposing monumental and mythological Western landscapes with multiple tracks of subjective synchronous sound."
-which is some pretty hefty language to use in self-analysis, though once you carve away the obfuscatory, recrementitious verbiage, the point is pretty hard to argue: the sound, which bears at times no strictly "documentary" relationship to the image, forms an exciting counterpoint to the image by creating another layer of meaning. It's sometimes used as a hallmark of great cinema that you can appreciate as much or even more with the sound turned off; Sweetgrass is an even rarer film that would still be a hell of an accomplishment with the image turned off.

The film is, in essence, a poetic impression of the dying West, as embodied by the epic act of sheep ranching, grounded in realism but given mood and tone through careful editorial control. Telling us nothing and showing us everything, it is a straightforward tribute to a particular way of life that is also incredibly complex and sensitive filmmaking, a triumph of the documentary form that deserves to stand in comparison not just to anything made in the modern era, but to the essential classic of the form as pioneered by men like Cooper and Flaherty.

Although, for all I talk about a lack of context, Barbash and Castaing-Taylor actually do provide us with some key information about the exact wheres and whats of their film; but they save these details until the very end, and what we learn in this moment is as striking as any twist ending in any thriller; though the facts are not hidden (if you followed the link to the film's website, you'll find the whole game given away), but the impact of the film is only improved by saving this info for last, and I will say no more about it, out of respect to the perfect structure of a truly essential film.

10/10

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