Megan Ratner discusses what makes a minimalist film about sheepherding so powerful
For nearly ten seconds, wind howls over a black screen. Mildly unsettling, the spare opening sets the tone for Sweetgrass, a lyrical documentary about modern-day sheepherders in the American West. Preceding the actual title, the film cuts to a beauty shot of the Rocky Mountains’ Boulder Valley—the rusted-out carcass of a 1930s sedan in deep snow; a silver caravan of slightly newer vintage; and finally a group of muttering, bulkyfleeced sheep. As the bellwether stares quizzically into the camera, he seems to manifest John Berger’s statement in his 1977 essay, “Why Look at Animals?”, collected in About Looking (Vintage, 1992), that “the animal has secrets which, unlike the secrets of caves, mountains, seas, are specifically addressed to man” (5). Berger goes on to note that modern life has not only sidelined animals, but the “middle and small peasant” who have “remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity,” their wisdom based on an “acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal” (28). Today’s cowboys and sheepherders are the cousins of this peasant class, anachronistically skilled workers whose identities are further complicated by the popular confusion of their lives with the John Wayne/Marlboro Man archetype.
With no narration, no interviews, and more animal noise than human, Sweetgrass chronicles the preparation and herding of 3000 sheep from Big Timber, Montana to the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain pastures (some 150 miles). Using long takes and an inventive approach to sound, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor contrast the callusing realities of modern-day cowboys with the idealized (and largely movie-made) myths of the West. Like their previous films—Made in U.S.A. (1990), about sweatshops and child labor in the Los Angeles garment industry, and In and Out of Africa (1992), a video about the transnational African art market—Sweetgrass draws on their ethnographic training to detail a way of life and a process of work. (The couple is based at Harvard: Barbash is associate curator of visual anthropology at the Peabody Museum and Castaing-Taylor directs the Sensory Ethnography Lab.) But in this film, the sheep take center stage, not just watched but watching back. Caught in surprisingly stately close-ups, they seem mysterious. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor describe Sweetgrass as an attempt to “express both the allure and ambivalence of the pastoral—not the fantasy of the pastoral as promulgated by poets and outsiders, but as it’s experienced by those whose lot in life it is to live it.”
The film begins in the early spring, as the flock is moved into the barn to be shorn of their winter coats. In the metronomic, calm shearing, the penned sheep are yanked up one-by-one, subdued by no more than the grip of the ranch hand’s legs, the only sound the shrill electronic shears. Released afterwards into falling snow, the animals look delicate and vulnerable. Extended takes allow the viewer to absorb the scene in its totality, with people characterized by their actions rather than their speech. Next comes the lambing, the urgent need to maximize lamb survival conveyed by a certain brutality when, for example, orphaned or rejected newborns, many still bloody, are tossed into the pens of adoptive ewes. The ranch hands talk more to the sheep than each other, the men’s apparent roughness belied by careful coddling and bottlefeeding of those youngsters denied a teat.
Eventually, the sheep drive through the town of Big Timber begins, the sheep swarming in all directions (and the camera often in their midst), the herders and ranch hands on foot and on horseback. The scene, like later images of the flock grazing in the high country, is in some ways difficult to credit to the present. One of the ranch hands remarks that just such scenes appear in the Bible. The filmmakers show people “long enough to allow the viewer to distinguish them as individuals” without any further identification, the emphasis largely on the sheep, with camera angles meant to “evoke the experiences of the sheep, of what it was like to inhabit their bodies, rather than to stare at them as objective bodies/ animals.” Bleats, barks, neighs, and assorted human vernacular and ululating compete with hoofbeats, rain, and the constant wind. The herding depends on the spotty communication between humans and animals; on the shorthand of walkietalkie and cellphone; as much on observation as intuition. Throughout Sweetgrass, several tableaux of the flock mimic human crowd shots, with a few ovine faces staring straight into the camera.
The chaos of getting the herd to the foothills involves herders of all ages, including a somber youngster, her tiny body dwarfed by the flanks of the quarter horse she deftly guides as she worries about all the other animals she needs to tend back home. In the firelit camp, tarpaulin tents slung between trees offer bracing shelter. Finally, only two herders remain: John Ahern and Pat Connolly. Over the next few weeks, they will shoulder full responsibility for protecting the herd from bear, wolverine, or, more frequently, simply wandering off in the wrong direction.
To term the camerawork handheld is somewhat of a misnomer. Castaing-Taylor wore a shoulder harness “from dawn to dusk,” merging himself with the camera so completely that he ate and sometimes dozed with it. Much filming was done on foot, sometimes on horseback, and sometimes low to the ground, tracking the sheep at their level. The effect is dignifying, exploratory without being exploitative. The filmmakers “wanted to bear witness to people (and animals) actually living their lives.” Even when he was alone with Ahern and Connolly, Castaing-Taylor posed no questions, nor asked for them (or anyone else) to repeat any action. Though Castaing-Taylor made an effort to mitigate the camera’s effect, using it as “almost a prosthetic extension of his body rather than an instrument meant to shoot,” he never denied its presence. But he also became in effect an apprentice hired hand and the hardship to which he subjected himself fostered an intimacy with the Sweetgrass subjects, human and animal. The filmmakers deliberately avoided the “ex post facto reports” common to most documentaries, which often result in a “highly attenuated, and often affected and dissimulating, kind of representation, and a very impoverished record of the present.” The camerawork shadows the subjects, more concerned with getting the feel for what the cowboys are doing than for clarifying everything for the viewer. Sweetgrass leaves much unexplained; yet though you feel slightly out of your depth, there is never a sense of confusion. It’s an approach that honors the skilled work on display.
There are few close-ups of the humans. The filmmakers see this as “freeing the viewer” from the limits of identification because it “forces the viewer to accept the trajectory of the journey, the landscape, without riding on any character’s back.” This emphasis on the collective over the individual loosens up the film and makes it gently abstract. Giving equal weight to people and animals was a way to “subjectify” the animals, both to anthropomorphize them and to “animalize or bestialize the humans” in this harsh environment. The accretion of detail encourages full attention to the unforgiving terrain, of paths that are rarely anything but rocky, slippery, and steep.
A good deal of the compelling effect is accomplished with sound, which plays as important a part in Sweetgrass as the images. Eager to capture “much of non-verbal yet aural” interaction between humans and animals, Barbash and Castaing-Taylor “spent more on sound than on the camera.” Using the most powerful lavaliers permitted under U.S. law, they were able to record multiple sound signals from various points in a three-mile diameter. To convey the complications of an apparently simple passage of sheep from pen to pasture, Castaing-Taylor sometimes miked as many as eight animals and/or people. Four were recorded in sync, though Castaing-Taylor’s headphones accommodated only two signals at a time. “He was constantly switching which sources he was monitoring, and deciding which ones were the most interesting to record, and unplugging and plugging accordingly.” As it does in the wilderness, the film’s sound occasionally disorients you, revealing the iconic scenery of the West as something stranger than it is usually presented in cinema and on TV. For much of the film, there’s a feeling of not knowing where you are; viewers’ active engagement is thus enlisted. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor set out to “establish a dialogue with an audience without having to do it for them.”
Recognizable language, often removed from “communicative rationality,” does little to explain matters. The burden is on the viewer to figure out what’s going on: “Everyday cognition consists rather of multi-stranded fragments of sensation, imagery, language, and memory, all jostled together messily. We sought to reflect this in the film’s aesthetic and sound–image relationship.” In Sweetgrass, speech is vernacular, sometimes even incomprehensible. The filmmakers mix sound from one point with an image from another, creating surprising juxtapositions. Without any explanation, this web of voices, perpetually accompanied by animal sounds, conveys the complex, nonlinear work that each aspect of sheeptending involves.
The first human sound in the film is “Kumbaday,” the image a long take of a ranch hand coaxing a sheep into a yard at dusk. Though the locals attribute “Kumbaday” either to handed-down Norwegian from the homesteaders, or to the Irish “Come Paddy,” the filmmakers discovered neither was right. Instead, it derives from Tudor duck-keepers’ “Coombiddee,” a contraction of “Come, I bid thee!” As used in the film, “Kumbaday” has no obvious referent, the filmmaker’s way of avoiding the “discursive clarity (and self-objectification) to which documentary typically tends.” In some ways, viewer confusion mirrors that of the sheep: only in the next shot does it become clear that the animals are being gathered for shearing.
A bit later, in the longest shot of the film, a woman rancher traverses the dimly lit nighttime lambing shed. Calmly, patiently she lures a reluctant ewe to follow its lamb into a jug. Gently tugging the bleating newborn by one leg, the woman draws the ewe’s attention by mimicking the lamb’s insistent bleat. “Of course,” according to the filmmakers, “mimesis is at the heart of both language and intersubjectivity, but the mimicking of the lamb sound is hardly ‘language’ in the sense usually intended by the term.” Though the shot is wide, the effect is intimate in the way the close-ups of the sheep are: a world to which you are offered a small glimpse, more startling for its inaccessibility. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor considered adding explicatory subtitles, choosing to risk that “perhaps being pulled in to muddle about for oneself allows for greater understanding than any verbal outline from anyone else.” Admittedly, this amounts to a “political statement of a kind,” which “places the onus for understanding more on the outsider than on the insider.” Like the “Kumbaday” sequence, the lack of recognizable language allows the viewer to imagine the experience of the lamb and ewe.
Barbash and Castaing-Taylor were “wary of the picturesque” yet eager to develop an “aesthetic tension” between the visual and acoustical perspectives. The recording process which enabled this clash was developed on the fly. Castaing-Taylor noted the “frequent lack of correspondence (and hence suspension of realism/naturalism)” between what he saw through the camera and heard on his headphones. The “synchronicities struck him as utterly surreal in their incongruities” and led to a further refining, with the collaboration of Ernst Karel, in the sound mix and edit. Yet the acoustics never become effects, never take you out of the film. Barbash and Castaing-Taylor include a snatch of Iraq War radio news, “one of the few ways within the diegesis of Sweetgrass that the global (national and international politics) is referenced in the (hyper)local.” They were keen to place the action chronologically, to avoid a tendency of documentary films to make “their subjects seem timeless, as if they are forever caught in the moment in which they are filmed. We try to play with the tension between the general and the specific moment, as well as between the indexical and the particular, and the mythic.”
This establishment of an aural presence is effected also by allowing us to overhear John Ahern, for example, singing to the sheep. (It’s an especially good example of the filmmakers’ efforts to “crack the veneer of the austere, ever resilient cowboy.”) When paired with a distant wide shot of the unpredictable flock descending the mountain, Ahern’s lilting cajoling to the “girls” seems remarkably intimate. Although both he and Pat Connolly do nothing to dispel the laconic cowboy stereotype, both men are surprisingly uninhibited about talking to themselves while miked. In such demanding working conditions, conversation, even over a meal, never much strays from the sheep. When talking to each other, Ahern and Connolly make little eye contact and don’t even seem to hear each other, yet they “express a whole plethora of emotions” while talking to the animals.
As a counterpoint to the earlier ewe-and-lamb-coaxing, a later scene shows a nearly whimpering Connolly venting to his mother, the camera alternating between a staggering panorama, the kind Montana is sold on, and his relatively small figure, awkwardly perched on a hillock for better cellphone reception: “It’s so goddam rough that you kill a horse. This is bullshit. I don’t get to bed until eleven, then I’m up at five. I can’t sleep during the day—you don’t daaaaare. It never quits blowin’. I’d rather enjoy these mountains than hate ’em. And it’s getting to that point I’m just hatin’.” Connolly says a few words, more to himself than camera, about the phone reception, but softens up unexpectedly at the sight of his dog. It’s one of the few scenes that feel utterly contemporary: not only does it involve a cellphone, but Connolly talks about his feelings. For a moment he seems less opaque.
DECONSTRUCTING THE WESTERN
In what is arguably the most beautiful shot in a film full of stunners, snow dusts the freshly shorn sheep, rendering them spectral, almost transparent. The image has overtones of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and John Constable, though the filmmakers did not set out to echo those painters specifically. A sense of melancholy and loss is the main connecting thread: Corot and Constable painted pastoral scenes at the height of the industrial revolution, Sweetgrass documents a way of life—and the interdependence of man and animal— that the twentieth century put to an end in the U.S. As Barbash and Castaing-Taylor note: “it’s de rigueur in anthropology to talk about novel forms of syncretic cultural difference, and emergence, but it was also important for us to signify loss, and ending . . . mourning.” Though the film deals with the obsolescence of authentic cowboying, it also invokes the cinematic imagery that built the myth of the American West as a coherent whole.
Perhaps the seminal genre of U.S. cinema, the Western’s potted history and comforting conventions inform a great deal of life in America; it enabled, for example, the careers of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Though the West certainly figured in early U.S. history, the confluence of motion pictures (features as well as travelogues), the car, and, in more or less the same early twentieth-century years, the creation of the national parks (“America’s best idea,” in Ken Burns’s boosterish formulation) all contributed to what environmental historian Alfred Runte in National Parks: The American Experience (University of Nebraska Press, 1979) terms a “scenic nationalism.” The car facilitated mass tourism, the injunction to “see America first” by means of the automobile. In America, cars soon meant fun and the West became the nation’s playground, marketed, as Jennifer Lynn Peterson notes in Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel (ed. Jeffrey Ruoff, Duke University Press, 2006), not as the “space of western landscape but the space of cinema itself” (96). To this day, fueled in part by movie fantasies, many well-heeled, so-called neo-homesteaders willingly pay top dollar for a perceived authenticity, contrived nostalgia, and a killer view.
Barbash and Castaing-Taylor compare Sweetgrass to Westerns because the genre captures “a certain reality” and “because contemporary working cowboys have internalized many of the cultural and psychological diacritics of cowboy culture, without being self-conscious about their objectification.” Sometimes, as when he rides across a ridge at dusk, John Ahern seems straight from central casting; likewise the showdown-ready Main Street in Big Timber or even the bursts of white gunfire as Connolly shoots at a bear in the middle of the night. But the resemblances are on the surface only; Westerns feed off a nostalgia that Sweetgrass negates. Reversing the traditional arc of a Western from lawlessness to order, Sweetgrass devolves from structure into fragmentation. The final scenes point up the uncertainty and transience that are the hallmarks of an occupation which is itself dying out.
The film ends with a conversation between John Ahern and another ranch hand in the cab of a pickup truck, the summer pasturing over. Questioned about what’s next, Ahern is vague. Away from the trail he’s just another American between jobs, the drive recorded here the last before the Absaroka trail was closed down. The final note is one of anxiety, set against a landscape inextricably bound up with power and with American identity itself.
MEGAN RATNER. Film Quarterly, 63 (3): 23–27, 2010.
Megan Ratner discusses what makes a minimalist film about sheepherding so powerful