Though “Sweetgrass” (2009), which can inadequately be summarized as “a documentary about a sheep drive in Montana,” is one of the more visually arresting digital films I have seen in some time, its enveloping soundtrack leaves the most enduring impression. The film is saturated, make that besotted, with the sounds of wind howling, sheep bleating, the clacking of hooves on rock, the clanging of bells, the sloshing of cold stream water, and the messy slurp of chewing at feeding time. A traditional musical score would be superfluous. Sweet Sweetgrass´ Baaaa-dass Song is a symphony like no other.
Nature isn´t the only vocalist either. Humans are a peripheral presence at first, initially manifested through their thrumming farm machines, but they gradually assume a more prominent role as the sheep drive rambles-ambles on. A woman chirps to entice a disinterested ewe to nurse her newborn lamb. Later, after we´ve been treated to another lyrical, wordless sequence of sheep scrambling through the woods and massing in a grassy valley, two sheepherders kick back in their tent and prepare for camp. The laconic older man (John), with his soothing, gravelly Sam Elliott voice, rumninates about the day´s work when the younger one (Pat) looks out the tent and observes: “They´re heading back to the pass. Cocksuckers!” This eventually leads into an explosive profanity-laced tirade that would put Peter Capaldi of “In the Loop” to shame as Pat spews venom at his hated charges that refuse to cooperate: “Motherfuckers! You can´t fucking leave the cocksuckers five fucking minutes!” Just layin´ down some coprolalic rhythm for the orchestra.
It´s a very funny moment, but also a critical one in highlighting the contrast that elevates “Sweetgrass” beyond the already meritorious realm of the poetic, ethnographic documentary. Viewers have been treated to a sensory orgy of visual and aural beauty wed together in the rare manner of only the most accomplished cinema. For John and Pat, however, it´s just been a sweaty, tedious, thankless grind. The sheep are beautiful, but they are also dumber than ditch water and they aren´t particularly solicitous of the well-being of their human keepers. This should not come as a surprise. We were given warning in the pre-credit sequence. Chewing casually, a sheep slowly turns and looks directly into the camera, meeting the viewer´s gaze for a lengthy beat. It´s a remarkable shot that not only shatters the fourth wall, but provides testimony to the ambiguity of the photographic image. We can read so many things into that blank stare: a “welcome to the ceremonies,” a cutesy moment of connection to a slightly-anthropomorphized animal, a chasm of “bottomless stupidity” as Herzog might say, or perhaps an ominous pause before the tortured bleating of “Chaaaa-os reigns.” Goddamn cocksucker.
Filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash humbly refer to themselves as “recordists” but it is in post-production where they have shaped their “recording” into this delicate, perfectly balanced aesthetic form, not to mention a fully(wooly)-fleshed narrative. The contrast of bucolic splendor with unromanticized reality is mirrored to some degree by the odd couple protagonists: the young, splenetic Pat, and the seasoned, laid-back John who, opposite of his partner, greets his flock with the calmly repeated: “Good morning, sheep.” Still, the film´s function as a record is vital, and is already tinged with a sense of nostalgia because this sheep drive through the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains of Montana (actually three different drives edited to look like one), once an annual ritual, has since lapsed into history.
Apropos of the title, this is also a genuinely sweet movie at times. Pat takes center stage once again in what may well be the greatest scene from any 2010 theatrical release. Worn ragged, stranded in a sea of cocksucking sheep, and saddled with a limp herding dog, Pat the macho cussing cowboy does what every boy wants to do when the sheep shit hits the fan: he calls mom. Add another contrast to the mix. High atop a mountain shaped by hundreds of thousands of years of geological stress and erosion, Pat uses his polymer-constructed cell phone to get a much-needed dose of maternal support. With a quivering voice, he rants at the injustice of it all: “They went over a cliff, mother!”
“Sweetgrass” is both a throwback to the early days of cinema and a finely honed product of the digital age. Funny, gorgeous, richly detailed, and blessed with great characters, both human and ovine, “Sweetgrass” is an intoxicating audiovisual experience and a sprawling story that encompasses nothing less than the seasons, birth and death. Not bad for “a documentary about a sheep drive in Montana.”
CHRISTOPHER LONG. DVD Town. August 27, 2010.