Sweetgrass Poster

Cinema Scope

“What does it mean… when filmmakers—specifically cultural anthropologists, sensory ethnographers and photographers—place individual sound mics on the animals they’re filming in order to get the right kind of sound? If the sound is emerging from a different spot than where the camera is filming, is this, in a sense, staging? Or is it a more precise kind of use of sound in a documentary-type filmmaking setting? Or something else? The fact that Lucien Castaing-Taylor, director of Harvard’s Film Study Center and Sensory Ethnography Lab, and Ilisa Barbash, curator of Visual Anthropology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, went to such extremes for the sound element alone in their film, Sweetgrass, illustrates the deliriously obsessive activity behind this monumental and often quite funny film about sheep and the men who herd them in Montana’s craggy backcountry. First and foremost an anthropological work of art, the film is not, strictly speaking, directed. Castaing-Taylor identifies himself as “recordist,” which points to a much larger issue that these films, including Sweetgrass, open up regarding representation and observation. Led by the decades-long example of James Benning, artists such as Geyrhalter and fellow Austrian Peter Schreiner have snatched up the scientific field film and transformed it. In Our Daily Bread, the observed motion of agricultural machinery is nothing if not choreographic, while Schreiner’s Bellavista (2006) turns the Alpine town of Sappada into a surreal landscape in which time frequently seems to stop altogether, and one’s sense of place is radically unhinged. Even ostensibly narrative films such as C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s The Anchorage (winner of the Filmmaker of the Present prize at this year’s edition of the Locarno film festival), which tells of some select days in the life of a woman living on a Swedish island and her encounters with family and one looming stranger, is explicitly inspired by the field film tradition, even as the results nestle in the twin embraces of ancient myth and Jean Epstein. These films drift away from “documentary,” toward perhaps what might be labelled a “nonfiction feature,” but even then, the label fails to stick, because the fiction appears to be nonfictional (as in much of The Anchorage) and vice versa (as in Bellavista). This deliberately contradictory nature is a fundamental part of these films’ essence. If any finding is made at all, it is that the categories are finally quite pointless.
Look on the web and find that Sweetgrass has already been categorized. It makes for funny reading: At one website, the labels read thusly: “landscape, realism, video art, installation, digital, sheep, farming, anthropology, film.” The words absurdly smack up against each other, a crash of labels. Yet this list does begin to describe some of the content of Sweetgrass, and speaks to the impossibility of slotting it. “The sheep movie,” as it was known first in the Berlinale Forum. That’s the best that can be done for it in that regard, but not in regard to the film’s political dimensions. For in Sweetgrass… the guiding force behind these representations of working on the surface of the earth is an overwhelming sadness at the process of collapse and the end of things, alongside the unspoken drama of human beings stuck in a cycle with no escape. The politics is therefore immensely angry, and more forceful due to the filmmakers/recordists’ refusal to announce their anger in literal means…

[T]the act of recording is one of mankind’s other noble professions. Recording, to be clear, isn’t meant in this sense as a mechanically minded placement of camera and sound equipment, and a switching of the machines to the “on” and “off” positions. Rather, it imposes a distanced perspective and discipline on the filmmaking, married to a consciousness of the observer and a deliberation to bring the viewer in line with what the recorder sees and hears. There’s an extraordinary moment in Sweetgrass when the camera gradually zooms from an ultra long-shot of a ridge of the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains to a detail of that ridge, revealing at first a vague movement, then what looks like a river cascading down the ride’s steep slope, then the initial details of a sheep herd and then to the individual sheep, moving along the slope in a steady unending flow. The movement of the animals is indeed “recorded,” and the geographic context in which they’re moving is fully captured; the mechanics of the zoom even suggests the impersonal nature of the surveillance camera targeting a subject of interest (and, in this case, the further suggestion of a hunter eyeing its prey). But the shot, like so many in Sweetgrass, is transformed by selection through recording: The beginning fascination with the Absaroka-Beartooth’s spectacularly craggy, sculptural topography, shifts invisibly to a deliberate focus on the pure strangeness of a sheep herd’s resemblance to other natural patterns, from avalanches and the sliding sands on a dune to the steady train of ants on the move. A beauty consumes the screen; the scientifically observed morphs into art…

This collision of emotions—anger and pain from one side, happiness and pleasure from the other, so often contrived in the sort of “dramatic” film favoured by American documentary directors aiming for Sundance, yet here so organic to the material that it never seems mannered—… reaches an apotheosis during the final unexpected section of Sweetgrass. For several long, leisurely passages, Castaing-Taylor and Barbash relay their wonderment at the sight of contemporary American sheepherders living like 19th century cowboys, sweating it out under arduous conditions that include scrambling up unstable inclines to retrieve stray sheep. Only when they’re seen pulling out their walkie-talkies or cell phones is the viewer jolted back into our time—the film had already established such anachronisms, the best being an unforgettable wide shot of a sheep herd marching down the middle of a small town’s deserted main street, but the action is still a shock. The recording keeps rolling, and one cell call from a herder to his mother is overheard, and, then, a further shock: The cowboy image of imperturbability is shattered as he describes, on the verge of tears, why the life he knows is falling apart. “It’s miserable up here. This is bullshit mom. I’m runnin’ my guts out. My dog’s so sore-footed he can’t walk! My knee’s so screwed up! My knee’s hurtin’. My dog won’t even leave camp! I can’t even get him to go with me…It’s so goddamn rough that you kill a horse—I mean my horse is ribs and bones. Yeah. I’m just ridin’ the shit out of him…Whenever I walk, it pops. Just like breakin’ a branch. It don’t hurt, it just grinds. But it’s going to hurt if I keep this shit up…I’d rather enjoy these mountains rather than hate them, and it’s getting to that point: I’m just hatin’ it.”

A key scene of Sweetgrass revolves around this monologue, but it’s presented ironically, with the herder’s lament heard against a majestically slow right-to-left pan across a mountain vista that tourists to Montana would kill for…”

Agrarian Utopias/Dystopias: Thew New Non-Fiction
Cinema Scope

A Cinema Guild Release | © 2009 All Rights Reserved | sweetgrass@me.com.