REVIEW: Sweetgrass [2009]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★


Rating: NR | Runtime: 101 minutes | Release Date: November 18th, 2009 (France)
Studio: Mandragora Distribution / The Cinema Guild
Director(s): Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Ilisa Barbash

“How can dogs like me if people don’t?”

My first thought when John Ahern, Pat Connolly, and the rest of Lawrence Allested’s ranchers took off for the Montanan Absaroka-Beartooth mountains was: “There has to be a better way.” I know such a statement can be construed as demeaning to a way of life that existed since the nineteenth century for many Norwegian-Americans with grazing permits roaming the American West, but it’s less a response to the people as much as the endeavor’s extreme arduousness. You can’t help but respect these cowboys and their unforgiving lifestyle—one in which Sweetgrass director Lucien Castaing-Taylor needed surgery upon his return twenty-pounds lighter and an unruly beard later with advanced degenerative arthritis. We’re talking one hundred and fifty miles a year to feed a flock and in turn a family.

Castaing-Taylor is one half of the anthropological pair that created the mesmerizing Leviathan a few years after Sweetgrass‘ release. His look at the dynamic between ranchers, sheep, and canine may not be as beautifully abstract or as aesthetically unpredictable as his glimpse at the commercial fishing industry, but it is just as successful in depicting a way of life without script or interference. He’s literally a fly on the wall throughout the process traveling from shearing to birthing to herding and back—the camera serving as a window for us to peer through and not be seen. We listen to the lighthearted jokes, the explosive frustration, and the trying moments of impending disaster with grizzly bears in the distance at the other end of a shotgun.

This is a way of being I couldn’t imagine taking on away from the life I’ve led. Castaing-Taylor’s film therefore becomes an educational tool as well as permanent record of man’s ability to overcome and work symbiotically with nature. Mankind is very much a shepherd in this scenario: any depiction of ear/tail cropping or numbered tattoos proving less a mark of the industrial machine’s ownership than a contract of compromise. The ranchers take pains to do right by these animals, maybe not selflessly, but definitely with compassion. Culling the wool from their backs becomes an art form as satisfying to watch as peeling an orange so the rind remains in one piece is to accomplish. Finding mothers for orphaned lambs a strange, yet dignified necessity.

Castaing-Taylor and wife Ilisa Barbash began their crusade in the West in 2001, filmed through 2003 before taking another five years to sift through hours upon hours of footage to find the story they felt fit a theatrical release model. What we’re given has the appearance of a plot if only because it documents the passing of time between the start and end of its journey into the mountains. We experience the difficulties, listening as talk about dogs not pulling their weight transforms into lamentation. What appears routine with day turning to night, tents being raised, and sheep left to huddle together until everyone sets out further into the wilderness becomes an unrelenting series of random struggles and extra, painstaking work to get back on track.

And somehow it never gets boring—a feat I’m not quite sure is possible despite having experienced it. You’d imagine watching non-descript sheep running into each other with dogs circling them up hills would get monotonous, but there’s a striking beauty to it that enraptures the senses so each new scene becomes different than the last. My personal preference is the extreme close-ups and aerial shots, each abstracting the action away from the reality of what’s happening. The former delivers a chaotic, kinetic energy tempered by brief moments of recognition when a sheep turns to look us in the eye. The latter provides an unreal pattern of motion as the white mass of animals puckers and bloats across the green expanse in a rhythmically symphonic dance.

It’s only at the conclusion via a brief caption of text that we learn this is the last journey. The ranch was sold shortly thereafter and the idea of summer pasture went virtually extinct. John’s asked what he plans to do next and he simply states he was hoping to take a week or two off before deciding. He’s lived a hard life to an age that would be easy to retire in our world, but what does that concept mean in his? These aren’t banker or lawyers sitting at desks day in and day out where retirement means sitting at another desk without responsibility. John and the rest have been riding horses into those mountains since they were barely old enough to walk. And now it’s done.


photography:
courtesy of the film’s website

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