July 30, 2010


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ***

Sheep, bless 'em, are all over the place in Sweetgrass, the new documentary by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, which is all about herding, driving, birthing, shearing, protecting, feeding and otherwise caring for the woolly beasts. Hard to imagine that sheep could be so fascinating and charming to watch and listen to -- for awhile.

Fortunately, there are other points of interest in this somewhat (even at only 101 minutes) overlong film that may prove more intriguing to the anthropologically inclined than to the typical film buff. Along the way, however, there is some stunning photography (by Castaing-Taylor) with the occasional unforgettable shot; I may always remember what looks like thousands of sheep moseying down the center of a small-town main street.

More than anything else, however, the film unintentionally has me asking a question: Has narration simply been done away with in today's documentaries? Certain filmmakers, particularly those whose documentaries unspool over hours (Maysles and Frederick Wiseman come to mind) have the time to let their exposition unroll, with ample hours for their audience to explore and learn what is going on. (During the editing process, smart filmmakers will also know what to leave in and what to take out, so that the viewer begins to understand all that is happening.)

Shorter films, however, like Sweetgrass and the recent Korean doc Old Partner, still often need at least a bit of explanation. And while it is true that the press kits given us reviewers offer reams of explanation, it is not available to the average moviegoer, and in any case, would be more useful during the screening or before the film is to be viewed.

Sweetgrass offers almost no narration or information except what we learn from the few very taciturn cowboys on view. Even then, it takes nearly 20 minutes of viewing before the first actual word is spoken (up to then it's nothing but bleating). We know these cowboys are driving their huge herd somewhere and why, but surely there are so many interesting little things about the drive that we might learn and which the cowboys take for granted. But no: the filmmakers have decided to simply show and not tell. While I admire this choice in a good narrative film, it can be a frustrating one in a documentary -- to which we generally come to learn as well as enjoy.

Back to the film itself: the shots of the shearing process may take some of us back to that fine Australian movie Sunday Too Far Away, and the vistas are so drained of color in the winter that, when a roll of green grass is spread out before the sheep, it almost looks like a CGI effect. As for the cowboys, the bits we see of them, because we see so little compared with sheep, seem to take on additional meaning. At one point one of them tells a joke about a new brain, and we can't help but think about the fate of this dying breed.

There's an awful lot of walkie-talkie usage, which must be a huge help to the men, though it bored the hell out of this viewer, as did the constant bleating. (Little wonder the men camp over the next hill whenever possible.) One conversation on a mountaintop via cell phone, however, should surprise you. Taking place between a cowboy, nearly in tears, and his mom, this is not the buttoned-up Gary Cooper-type we've come to expect, but one sorrowful, flesh-and-blood-and-in-pain fellow.

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Posted by cphillips at July 30, 2010 10:37 AM
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