SWEETGRASS (Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009)

Spousal team Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash have made an uneven although intermittently very beautiful documentary encapsulating the twilight of the American cowboy—an elegy for the Old West. Actually, Sweetgrass deals with aging sheepherders, not cow herders, in Montana as they direct their 3000-head herd for 150 miles over expansive fields and daunting mountains to reach public grazing land. At the conclusion, script discloses what we’ve witnessed: the last such event along the trail—a practice since the nineteenth century.
     Castaing-Taylor accompanied the trek, the camera strapped to him; presumably, what we see is “raw,” although a stunningly composed long-shot of a river of sheep descending a mountain may be the most powerful shot in the film. Castaing-Taylor calls himself a “recordist,” and he and Barbash consider themselves “visual anthropologists.” However, eschewing self-delusion, Castaing-Taylor has also noted that every cut—he and Barbash edited Sweetgrass—subverts objectivity.
     In a lovely pre-credit sequence, following a series of establishing shots a single sheep pauses to observe the observing camera. The mild-eyed creature is so thoroughly engrossed by the camera that its stillness suggests a freeze frame, making all the more revelatory the surrounding plant-life that’s subtly animated by a breeze. The whole shot encapsulates the mystery of Nature, while the sheep vis-à-vis the camera may be contemplating some foreign intrusion into its realm. I don’t know when I’ve been so moved by a film’s opening.
     For me, though, some of this film is too nagging to process: the insensitive shearing of the sheep; the cowboy who blubbers on the phone about his own physical pain and that of his lone companion, his dog. And much of the film is monotonous.
     Overall, Sweetgrass is worth anyone’s time. It comes from France, the U.S., the United Kingdom.

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