‘Sweetgrass’ drifts so far from the expected narrative or expositional tenets of the documentary format that it’s possible to forget you are actually watching a documentary and feel that, instead, you’re immersed in some kind of Tarkovskian art movie or film-poem.
‘Sweetgrass’ exists without narration or “talking heads” interview footage. For the first half hour at least, before a group of unnamed ranchers drive a sizeable herd of sheep through Montana’s Beartooth Mountains in search of pasture, barely a word is spoken. For the first half hour, the focus is entirely on the sheep. The ranchers float around on the periphery, but say barely anything. The camera insinuates itself amongst the herd and it seems for a while as if film-makers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash are going to remain with the sheep’s POV for the duration – a prospect nowhere near as unappealing as it may sound.
Incidentally: the use of “filmmakers” in that last sentence. ‘Sweetgrass’ bears no director’s credit. It was produced by Barbash and “recorded” by Castaing-Taylor. The credits are as spare as anything else in the film, and it’s immediately apparent that’s exactly what Castaing-Taylor did: let he his camera record what was happening.
Ah, but there’s the rub. ‘Sweetgrass’ was shot between 2001 and 2003 (it wasn’t released till 2009) and two years’ worth of footage, even if collected intermittently, still leaves the editor with subjective choices in terms of sculpting a 105-minute feature which, notwithstanding its jettisoning of conventional narrative techniques, still needs a rhythm, a flow and an overarching structure. To put it another way: language is the least of Castaing-Taylor and Barbash’s concerns, but grammar still applies – the grammar of cinema. And every cut, as Truffaut pointed out … well, you know the rest. There’s also an eminently sneaky non-naturalistic moment involving the overdubbing of an extreme long shot with soundtrack that seems like it might have been “lifted” from elsewhere during the two-years Castaing-Taylor recorded the work of the ranchers.
It’s a measure of how successful ‘Sweetgrass’ is, however, that these considerations didn’t come to mind until way after those stripped-down end credits had taken up their minute and a half of screen time (if that) and this exhausted viewer was giving thanks that he doesn’t have to herd sheep for a living. Granted, there seemed to be a total dearth of the kind of office politics, lying, backstabbing, and rampant careerist arrogance that makes my place of work such a Machiavellian shithole, but at least I don’t have to deal with grizzly bears, dead sheep, vertiginous mountainsides, adverse weather conditions, 18-hour days, amenities that redefine basic, and loneliness that must seem all the more crushing for the grandeur of the mountains and the endless emptiness of the landscape.
Maybe it’s the loneliness that informs the scene I mentioned earlier; maybe all of the above. Over a shot that reveals itself as ever more magisterial the further the camera pulls back, the sheep diminished to almost unidentifiable white dots making a slow progress, en masse, up a steep gradient in the kind of landscape that inspires epithets like “wilderness country”, the ranch boss lets forth with an expletive-peppered rant against the sheep, his dogs and probably every single thing under the sun, using the word “fuck” so many times in just a couple of minutes that a mash-up of ‘Casino’, ‘The Boondock Saints’ and ‘In Bruges’ would have a hard time staying the course.
It’s a curious moment – it rams home the thanklessness of the work and the wearying reality of the conditions, but it also feels out of place in a film where there has been no music, no narration, and the sound design up to this point has been rigorously diegetic. But, as entered into evidence earlier in this review, this didn’t occur to me until afterwards. So maybe the proof is in whether an aesthetic decision intrudes enough to throw you out of the film while you’re watching it. Besides, the doctrine of Herzog’s “ecstatic truth” – an intellectually and aesthetically valid option for the serious documentarist – can be said to apply.
‘Sweetgrass’, ultimately, is an elegy for a way of life. The film is offered in memoriam the very ranch it depicts: it ceased to be a going concern in 2004, just over a century after it was established. It depicts a way of life that was probably outdated several decades ago. There’s a scene of the ranch boss – a man of few words (when he’s not cussing, that is) and a chronic mumbler almost to the point of incoherence – is having a faltering conversation over a walky-talky. Between his linguistic deficiencies and a continual wash of static, it adds up to an awkward juxtaposition of the traditional and the contemporary. Remember Kirk Douglas riding across the scrubland in full cowboy gear in ‘Lonely are the Brave’, only to pull up his horse at the edge of a multi-lane freeway, huge Mack trucks thundering past? ‘Sweetgrass’ gives you that feeling for an hour and three quarters.