Saturday, August 28, 2010

Review: Sweetgrass

When I first heard about "Sweetgrass," -- a family of Montana sheepherders driving their flock into the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture -- I immediately romanticized it.

That feeling was promptly quashed five minutes into this thing.

Not that that's bad, because I think that is the intention of this enthralling documentary, which is filmed without any narration or interviews. The cameras are simply there on the journey, rolling and capturing its authenticity.

This method of filmmaking reminded me of the documentary "Into Great Silence," which is a contemplative look into daily monastic life at a French monastery. These kinds of films take a certain measure of patience and focus to make it through to the end, but if you can muster it up, they provide a unique experience. You feel free, a part of the setting, and can appreciate their sentiment without ever feeling manipulated by typical filmmaking ploys.

"Sweetgrass" starts out as winter begins to break, and the sheep are sheared (to the soft, lilting notes of AC/DC's "Highway to Hell"), and it was funny to see how the sheep's faces display a perpetual state of calm as they patiently bear with being gruffly handled and tossed about. There is also a very graphic birthing scene, and the roughness with which the lambs are treated surprised me. But at the same time, you can feel an underlying tenderness the workers have for the animals.

As they set out on their trek, there's an amazing shot of the 3,000 or so sheep making their way down main street of the small town. Herded by border collies, sheepdogs, workers on horseback and ATV's, the arduous process is astonishing, and as they make their way onto the trail and into the wilds of Montana, it immediately dawns on you that, this ain't gonna be easy.

The scenery is spectacular -- although, I wish this was available on blu-ray because some of the colors feel a little more washed out than they should be in a film that is set in such a beautiful part of the country -- but you find yourself unable to enjoy the surroundings fully because you're so distracted by all the pitfalls and complications and danger the group faces throughout the entire grueling journey.

But what this documentary also provides are the nuances of sound and a very gifted eye by the filmmakers. From the very start there are incredibly detailed sounds of the animals eating, the tinkling bells they wear on their collars, you hear their footsteps all around you as they march along, you hear the sounds of the birds and the surrounding wildlife, the wind, and the murmur of voices, sometimes singing, from the workers in the distance that puts you right there in the middle of all of it.

Combined with this are some incredible camera shots -- thrust right in the middle of a feeding frenzy or in the middle of the flock as it charges through a canyon. There are dazzling wide and long shots of the wilderness and the mountains that are interspersed so that you are consistently aware of the simultaneous beauty and unforgiving power of nature, that makes this whole endeavor feel very small and perhaps ill-fated.

John Ahern (Cinema Guild)
You get to know two workers along the way. One is John Ahern, a weathered veteran who reminds me of a cross between Jack Palance in "City Slickers" and the modern-day Mickey Rourke. This guy doesn't say much. He doesn't need to. "How can a dog like me if people don't," he says at one point. You can tell he's doing the only thing he was put on this earth to do, and he loves it completely, evidenced by his frequent and reflective gazes. There is a lengthy and intimate scene simply between him and his horse that is especially poignant and tells you everything you need to know about this guy.

The other is Pat Connolly, a younger worker, with a more outgoing personality and a more earnest and emotional approach to his job, although he has a tougher time adapting. I liked the conversations between these two. Sometimes they were nothing but awkward one-liners as Connolly talked and Ahern looked off into the distance (What is he looking at?!) Sometimes they were busting balls. Sometimes they were in-depth, as they discussed what to do about a potential bear situation in one particular instance.

All the while, you admire the unbelievable skill of these workers as the terrain and the journey gets rougher and rougher. There is indeed appalling evidence of a bear attack, and their subsequent reaction to it is a truly entertaining part of this film. And it isn't their last run-in with bears.

But while the skill of these workers is remarkable, it's not enough to combat the brutality of nature combined with the complication of driving thousands of sheep right into the middle of it. You can feel the frustration comically during Connolly's diatribe of colorful cursing as the border collies fail to keep the herd together at one point, and they scatter into a ravine.

Pat Connolly (Cinema Guild)
And you can feel the frustration poignantly when Connolly breaks down in a call to his mother on a mountain top, describing the scattering of the flock, the roaring wind, his border collie that can barely walk anymore, his own knee grinding with every step. You can understand his plight, especially if you think about these problems perhaps being compounded by pressing financial problems at home and the need to get this job done -- "I'd rather enjoy the mountains than hate them, but right now I hate them ... I've been saying a lot of prayers ..." But after venting on the phone, he feels rejuvenated it seems, and he shares a nice moment with his poor crippled dog who's been trying so hard.

This film signifies the end of this method of sheepherding. It's mentioned to us at the end of the documentary, the majority of which was shot in 2001, that the last sheepherder to drive a flock of sheep in such a way -- which turns out to be a 150-mile journey over several months -- did so during that year.

And as Ahern gets into the pickup truck after the exhausting drive is over, another job done -- and, of course, gazing wistfully out the window -- we can feel the nostalgic finality of this way of life and the uncertain transition to what lies ahead.

"Can rain all it wants to now," Ahern says, looking at the sky.

1 comment:

Monica E. Smith said...

I don't read many movie reviews; half the time, the reviewers have no clue about anything deeper than what is seen on the surface, let alone the wonderful nuances that give a film its depth. If reviews were more like this one, they would be standard fare for me. I'm Adding "Sweetgrass" to my Netflix Queue...