Monday, June 28, 2010

Sweetgrass - Immersion in the Landscape

Sweetgrass is an expansive new documentary about the last sheep herding trek through public lands in Montana. It is expansive because the natural landscape the sheep and the cowboys move through is visually stunning. Through the mountains, hills, rivers and forests, the film tracks moving flocks of sheep and the men, horses and dogs that watch them as they graze.

To balance the impressive visuals, there is little in the way of explanation. The soundtrack consists mainly of the natural sounds of the sheep themselves. What little narrative there is comes from the dialogue of the cowboys, often low in the mix or garble when they use two way radios. Because of the lack of dialogue, the film brings you into the landscape and the result is your interior moves into overdrive - thoughts come in response, filling up the narrative with whatever you bring to the scenes unfolding. As such, this film is probably not for anyone looking for Hollywood "action".

The human focus is mostly on two cowboys - one old, whose  easy-going manner includes sweetly talking to the sheep, his horse and the dogs. He sings in a ragged but surprisingly charming voice, utterly alone on the range for long periods of time. Poignantly, at the end we find out this is his last trek, and it is not clear that he has much else to do. The other cowboy is a much younger man, who seems alternately enthusiastic and depressed on the range. When he meets up with the older man, they speak in short sentences. When he is alone, he produces some of the most colorful and degenerate cussing you may have heard in awhile. You may get the impression the sheep respond better to the older man's singing.

The sheep and the landscape are really the attraction here. Though the sheep follow each other, it was interesting to see their varied reactions. Often, there would be a few off by themselves, blazing their own way through the land. It was fascinating to hear the multitude of sounds they make, and their timely reactions at moments of importance to the humans forcing them on, and filming them.

The most interesting scene takes place when the younger cowboy is cursing up a storm at his flock who has wandered down a steep hill. In between his curses, he wonders what he is doing there and also curses  the landscape itself. As he does this, the camera pulls back, showing the viewer more and more of the incredibly beautiful Montana wilderness. My guess is that the Chicago audience watching this might think he was insane for wanting to get away from that place. Later, he adds that he wants to get away because he wants to continue to love the mountains, not hate them as he is starting to do. Almost everyone complains about the work they do. Perhaps what we need is more of a balance - regionally, we all need time in the wilderness, but as humans, we understand that we might need to get out of it also. It is a fine line we tread, with a lot hanging in the balance.

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