I’ve been thinking about sheep. Ever since I saw the documentary SWEETGRASS over the weekend, I’ve been replaying the images in my mind. Newborn lambs thrown on top of each other, their bodies bouncing like rubber with no obvious damage done. A sheep chews cud and then pauses to give the camera a penetrating stare. A sheep herder’s frustrated and extended cussing diatribe at the herd he’s trying to control as the camera pulls back further and further to show the majestic expanse of wilderness that surrounds him. The sheep, their bodies flowing like water through the streets of a small town. SWEETGRASS (directed by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor) is a documentary about the last sheep drive up the Beartooth Mountains in Montana, a kind of elegy to the west and a meditation on existence dictated by nature and man’s limited control. A film so out of place and yet exactly the kind of unusual film you expect to see as part of the New York Film Festival.
Sitting in the formality of renovated and cavernous Alice Tully Hall, looking at a blow up of what was once low resolution video stretched beyond its capabilities, I was pondering why exactly this group of Lincoln Society members would find a film on sheep interesting and for that matter why I would pay the twenty bucks to go. The festival is usually full of heavyweights, and this year is no exception with Resnais, Almovodar, Von Trier, Haneke etc. And then there is a small sprinkling of films that seem to arrive out of thin air like this one and that usually disappear soon after, although SWEETGRASS will be at the Film Forum in January.
SWEETGRASS is surely cinematic and some of the images are stunning…but that’s not why I keep thinking about it. I’ve decided it’s the mood of the film. It hitches a ride on the melancholy of today’s cowboy, an existence that’s slowly growing extinct. The modern day cowboy is no longer part of the western archetype we remember from films like HIGH NOON, yet at times they can invoke that. The modern day cowboy in fact, according to SWEETGRASS, is on his cell phone complaining to his mother about how his job is really getting on his nerves. As much as SWEETGRASS is about the sheep, it eventually focuses in on two sheep herders, a younger, more easily frustrated Pat Connolly and an older, weather-worn and low key John Ahern. At one point they fire their guns in what seems like a blind attempt to stop the predators (presumably bears). The shots light up the night dramatically and for a moment we feel like we are in a John Ford movie. It’s only when the credits roll do we understand that this is their last trip.