Filing out from an off-campus screening at the Hamilton Theater Tuesday night, we were caught amongst a mass of teenagers there for a special midnight show of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen; it was all a bit like a staged reenactment of one of the final shots in the film we’d just seen, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s magnificent Sweetgrass. The scene in question shows a vast mob of sheep driven on the hoof from summer pasture and now bunched up at a railroad crossing close to market. Amidst the cacophony of bleating and bells clanging, the men whoop it up to celebrate the end of their journey. Not known at the time of shooting, it’s later revealed that this 150-mile long trek across streams and over arduous terrain to public grazing lands in the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains (and back out again) would be their last.
My initial trepidation—based on the first several shots—had been that this would be yet another quasi-structuralist “slow western”; thank goodness my initial assumptions were wrong, for this was a film that called for nimble improvisation and dynamic response to a subject not known for its ready compliance to documentary filmmakers (or to anyone, for that matter.)
Castaing-Taylor and Barbash returned to Montana three times to track (or, as they prefer to call it, record) the sheepherders’ journey through landscape that tests the limits of endurance, not just of humans, but of their horses and herding dogs as well. Aristotle had it wrong when he called shepherds “the laziest” of workers; their responsibilities are in fact never-ending. Even bedding down for the evening offers no real respite, as grizzlies pay frequent nocturnal visits to the herd.
Despite all that’s been made of the lightness and portability of modern equipment, anyone who knows of filmmaking’s difficulties under the best of circumstances will intuit the technical obstacles faced with shooting in such a remote locale. During the Q&A afterwards, Castaing-Taylor spoke of carrying their gear on horseback and accessing electricity from a car battery brought along for that purpose, a degree of hardship reminiscent of that faced by Eadweard Muybridge and other 19th century land survey photographers (and so vividly recounted in Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows), carrying not just the heavy glass plates, but also the wet-plate chemistry and darkroom itself in which those exposed plates would be processed.
An irony of the film is that only through sensing this invisible effort behind the camera will many of its viewers ever truly relate to the very different effort expended in front of it, activities so utterly foreign as to qualify as ethnography. Hannah Arendt’s distinction between work and labor is useful here; the latter, she wrote, “never designates the finished product, the result of laboring, but remains a verbal noun to be classed with the gerund.” Put another way, labor is by definition a never-ending process, never offering the satisfying permanence that is a thing; work, on the other hand, produces “a work” to be claimed as one’s own.
As subjects, the sheep posed unique technical challenges, ever-moving across windswept vistas (and with an occasional flare for comedy, as when they break that cardinal cinematic rule by staring straight at the camera). Ernst Karel’s sound design is extraordinary, and crucial to the film’s success is his deployment of wireless radio mics to bridge great distances and allow a paradoxical sonic intimacy across these vast open landscapes. The extreme disjuncture of audio/visual perspectives is powerful, as much for a practical response to the exigencies of livestock and landscape as for more expressive purposes, like conveying the loneliness of the sheepherder’s day-to-day routine.
At times we hear close range conversations amongst the men; in other instances, there are musings and muttered curses, having forgotten (or no longer caring) that they’re not really alone. “…Fuckin’ mountain climbin’ goat climbin’ cocksuckin’ MOTHERFUCKERS!!!” These and other epithets are directed at the herd, and later there’s a cellphone call—heard but mostly unseen—from one of the men to his mom from the top of a mountain. Funny, yet at the same time heartbreaking to hear such a tough character at wit’s end while we gaze down this beautiful mountainside; the sheep in the distance resemble maggots, scattering ever further. The dog, ordinarily darting to and fro, barking and nipping to contain them, is unable to stand, his paws worn raw from the journey. How easily it can all fall apart, as the full scope of their responsibility is laid plain before us.