Tuesday, January 5, 2010

SWEETGRASS -- the Sheep, Prarie and Mountain doc -- opens at Film Forum

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, driv-
ing, birthing, shear-
ing, protecting, feed-
ing and otherwise caring for the woolly beasts. You'll never have imagined that sheep could be so fascinating, charming, funny and beautiful to watch and listen to (oh, the bleating!).

For awhile. And then...
Not so much.

Fortunately, there are other points of interest in this somewhat (even at only 101 minutes) overlong film that may prove of more interest to the anthropologically inclined than to the typical film buff. Along the way, however, there is some stunning photography, as well as the occasional unforgettable shot. (I think I may always remember the sheep -- what looks like thousands of them --

moseying down the center of some 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 documen-
taries unspool over hours (Maysles and 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 this one and last week's Old Partner), often need at least a bit of explanation. And while the press kits for most movies offer reams of this, 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 has all been "bleat, bleat, bleat"). We know these cowboys are driving the the 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 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 those 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. And the sometimes constant bleating of the sheep grows tiring, too. (Little wonder the men camp over the next hill when 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.

Sweetgrass opens its two-week run at Film Forum on Wednesday, January 6. You can find additional screenings to come across the country by clicking here.

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