[T]he highlight of the 2009 Punto de Vista festival was the documentary Western directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, Sweetgrass. Shot digitally between 2001 and 2003, the film documents the last journey of two charismatic cowboys through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains, where they graze their herds during the summer. [With Sweetgrass] we stand before a monumental crepuscular Western in which the very arguments of the genre’s mythology are combined with sensitive observation of the landscape. In so doing, the film succeeds in realizing that “ecstasy of contemplation,” which is much sought but rarely achieved by the modern experimental documentary.
It is not easy to identify the main qualities of Sweetgrass’ aesthetic originality. To do so requires taking a step back from its overflowing sensuality, constructed out of a torrent of images from a place and time lost within the confines of civilization and history. However, if you scrutinize its formal structure, it is possible to perceive what I would call its organic construction, in which distances and points of view coalesce in a fluid and ghostly dance. Behind an apparent inclination towards stasis, Castaing-Taylor and Barbarsh’s camera is restless, creating an elastic form of movement that allows it to jump with absolute freedom from detailed observation of faces and bodies, human and animal, to sublime contemplation of the natural immensity of landscape (on occasion, through shots of the sheep taken from neighboring hills, which begs the question: How long did it take for them to reach that point of observation? I suspect it involved a
titanic effort). Thus, once settled in the general shot, the pair of directors take
complete advantage of an elementary geometric game between the movement of the animals and the borders of the shot — something reminiscent of Abbas Kiarostami’s mode of exploration in the chapter on ducks in Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003).
The dialectic between proximity and distance pervades the entire film and in turn moulds the other great dichotomy of the documentary: visions of communion and struggle as ways of relating between humanity (in this case, man) and nature. This is articulated by way of a dialogue between the unforgettable figures of its two main characters. On the side of measure and symbiosis with the landscape we have the
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veteran cowboy: the mythical reincarnation of the rugged, stoic, and taciturn cowboy. An anachronistic figure from a Sam Peckimpah Western, he is a man immersed in a melancholic interior dialogue he shares only, and only sporadically, with his sheep, whom he addresses as “girls.” This is pure tenderness. Meanwhile, on the side of struggle and rebellion we have the young cowboy: surpassed by the roughness of the rocky and steep landscape, he is anxious to abandon a life he finds unbearable. In spite of their differences, both men share the experience
of the daily struggle for survival, another of the film’s central themes which places it in dialogue with Anthony Mann’s Westerns, always plagued with geological obstacles, as well as with Robert Flaherty’s foundational cinema.
In his seminal work The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote: “Since the beginning, Flaherty intuitively perceived the limitations of the impersonal camera and the restrictions of the conventional academic frame.” This is a lesson Castaing-Taylor and Barbash have taken very much to heart. Additionally, towards the end of Sweetgrass, in a shot from almost ground-level, one of the veteran cowboy’s sheep dogs almost runs away with the camera. At this moment we hear the coarse voice of the cowboy saying “The dog almost stepped on your camera,” testimony to the collaboration between filmmaker(s) and characters that refers directly back to Nanook’s foundational gazes towards Flaherty’s camera. Finally, returning to Sarris’ critique of the impersonality of the frame, what better way to ratify it than to make reference to Sweetgrass’ nocturnal sequences, fragments where the film distills a true avant-garde pulse by constructing a poetics of “digital grain” that places in crisis, in piercing and glorious fashion, the very idea of cinema as figurative art.