One of the most enigmatic close-ups I’ve seen on screen this year is of a sheep. It stares into the camera at the beginning of Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s documentary about a round-up of the critters in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains, ruminating thoughtfully, as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa.
I love animals as much as the next person, but it takes a particular kind of movie magic for me to wax poetic about a barnyard animal. It’s the kind of power James Agee was referring to when he wrote in a review of Georges Rouquier’s Farrebique (1948) — a documentary record of a year on a French farm — that “the camera can do what nothing else in the world can do: record unaltered reality . . . perceive, record and communicate, in full unaltered power, the peculiar kinds of poetic vitality which blaze in every real thing.”
That’s how it’s supposed to work — at least, in theory. Not too many aspire to that ideal anymore, not even among documentarians. But Barbash and Castaing-Taylor, like Rouquier, are up to the task, trying to capture the je ne sais quoi of a year as lived by those still in tune with the rhythms of nature. Utilizing long takes and minimal camera movements with no commentary, the filmmakers demand the kind of viewer attention and participation not often called for in the brave new world of 3-D and CGI. Call me old-fashioned, but I find the spectacle of hundreds of sheep descending a mountainside like the conquistadors at the beginning of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God more impressive than all the vistas of Avatar’s Pandora.
It starts at the ranch with the shearing of sheep, a task far more fascinating, as Barbash and Castaing-Taylor detail it, than you might think. Meanwhile, a ewe gives birth and — as happens in the 2004 Mongolian semi-documentary The Story of the Weeping Camel — rejects the newborn, leaving the ranchers with the responsibility of nursing the little guy. Which they figure out with adorable ingenuity. Not that these hands are sentimentalists, as they toss the lambs around like gunny sacks.
Most of the film, though, takes place on the road, following the trail of the sheep as they’re driven over the spectacular Montana landscape to summer grazing in the public lands over the mountains, the pastoral panoramas broken by tree-blocked passages and nocturnal raids by bears. Attention focuses on two of the drovers, a sad-eyed, sleepy old-timer who calls the sheep “girls” (in the John Ford version, he’d be played by Walter Brennan), and a younger one who, at his wits’ end, calls them “dirty fucking pigs” and “cocksuckers” as they ignore him and wander away.
It’s at this point that technology intrudes to break the spell: the young drover melts down and calls his mother on a cell phone, destroying the cowboy (or is it sheepboy?) mystique forever. He tearily laments that his dog is footsore and his knee is giving out, that he’s tired of this shit and doesn’t want to do it anymore.
As it turns out, he doesn’t have a choice. An epigraph, the filmmakers’ only overt editorial intrusion, notes that this was the last time (the film was shot from 2001 to 2003) this trek would be made. Sweetgrass is not only living experience — it’s an artifact of a dying lifestyle. Perhaps also of an endangered kind of filmmaking, one that embraces reality, that requires viewers to watch and listen and not just consume.