Baa Along the Great Divide
Shown this year at the Berlin and New York Film Festivals, Sweetgrass is in a sense an anthropology-ethnography documentary, logical in light of its husband-and-wife filmmakers’ current association with those studies at Harvard. Sharing editing, with other functions ascribed individually to either one or the other, ex-Coloradans Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash have taken years to sort through two-hundred-and-more hours’ footage, the lion’s share taken that first summer of 2001.
Aside from an unnecessary opening title, “Big Timber Montana USA” -- pop. 1,557, between Bozeman and Billings – plus a few closing ones and a 1900-2004 In Memoriam to the sold ranch, no one intrudes from the outside, no narrator or voiceover or signposts, nothing beyond participants’ spare, sometimes off screen, often unintelligible natural speech or snatches of singing, directed to themselves or animals as much as to companions.
Actual filming was over three years. However, with no external reference or internal indication, the three-month, hundred-fifty-mile, four-county, cross-mountain sheep drive to grazing land and then town pens, appears out of time. In fact it is, for, though the film is admiring in its non-committal way, this is the final such journey. No more. If this seems a paean to a disappeared way of life with its rugged inhabitants, that lament is within the viewer, for there is no self-pity and this is not a Western in the usual mythologizing sense.
The work is at once numbingly dull routine and backbreaking, on the horseback drive and in the foreshortened preparation. All along are sounds, sometimes of man’s tools -- an ABC-radio flash of seven American war deaths startles from another world -- but mostly of wind, barking, hoofs, and the incessant bleating of three thousand sheep, their wool growing back following recent mechanical shearing.
At animal-head or human-buttocks height, Castaing-Taylor’s camera moves in and among the herded quadrupeds, their straight-on unblinking stares unnerving but signifying neither hostility nor acceptance nor curiosity. Prior to the drive, looking like hanging butcher-shop carcasses after the shearing, they give birth to lambs which are swaddled in adapted long johns, soon nearly knock their dams’ over seeking the teat, and grow quickly to join the herd.
Identified only in clipped dialogue, the humans remain pretty much unnamed or at least unnamable afterwards, so that various reviewers have differed on who’s who. First are the ranch hands, including a boy, an adolescent girl, and a young man who jokes about their cowboys’ brains being valuable because unused. Then older, grizzled John Ahern and Pat Connolly, the two herders to accompany the flock to Beartooth Mountains uplands and fight boredom and cold with basic equipment and marauding bears with flashlights and rifles. The younger Pat cooks and washes up and over crackly walkie-talkie phone whines to his mother about his popping knees and exhausted dog, but his obscenity-larded addresses to the sheep are more affectionate than angry.
Laid-back John has no plans for the future and “won’t worry about it for a week.” He is a more realistic Old West, pressured by no visible technology as in Dalton Trumbo’s marvelous but obvious Lonely Are the Brave, but nonetheless representative of a dying breed, out of a life too hard to be continued by modern man.
The landscape is impassive, winter-bleached of color, grainy and not presented as facile symbol; the sheep could have been kiddie-adorable but wind up a bit off-putting after a while. It is the men who inhabit the land and herd the sheep, who grow in stature and remain with the viewer after the film is over.
(Released by Cinema Guild; not rated by MPAA.)