Monday, January 04, 2010

Of Sheep and Men: Sweetgrass

“Home on the range” might sound romantic, but it is really a hardscrabble existence. It is also a vanishing way of life for a rugged group of Norwegian-American sheepherders in Montana. Driving sheep one hundred and fifty miles across the Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains is arduous work, but the scenery is spectacular in Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York.

For years, Lawrence Allested’s family had herded their sheep over the unforgiving mountains to summer pasture land. It is a trek that makes one respect nature, not romanticize it. They also consider the sheep to be livestock rather than pets, which leads to some initial scenes that might be a bit jarring to some. Indeed, they appear to be somewhat rough midwives when delivering baby lambs. Wisely though, the filmmakers refrain from editorializing, allowing a fuller picture of the sheepherding life to emerge at an unhurried pace during their final mountain sheep drive.

It is easy to understand why Montana is called “Big Sky Country” from Sweetgrass’s sheep driving sequences. Anyone who has ever gone camping in the mountains knows there is an unusual crispness to the morning air that somehow the filmmakers manage to evoke on the screen. They also capture some amazing images of the flock of sheep spreading ameba like across the landscape as the tiny sheepherding dogs try to corral them.

Aside from an occasional question asked from behind the camera, the filmmakers by-and-large do not intrude on the ritual unfolding around them. While this allows them to scrupulous document the shepherds and their sheep, it leaves some context unclear. In fact, it is never really explained why the sheep drive tradition is ending, beyond the general sense that the modern world is finally catching up to the old sheep hands.

Though their personal histories are never detailed, some elements of the sheep drivers’ personalities clearly emerge through the film’s close observations. One wrangler in particular does not seem like he will miss the drive one bit, calling his mother to complain about how miserable conditions are after cussing a blue streak at the sheep. Conversely, the old man seems right at home with it all and does not know what he will do in the future.

Partly a celebration of Montana’s natural beauty and partly an elegy to Allested’s vanishing way of life, Sweetgrass is a visually striking film. Its patient, meditative tone may not be to the tastes of all viewers, but it dramatically captures the realities of the cowboy life, both the good and the bad, without any false sentiment or urban prejudices. It opens in New York at Film Forum this Wednesday (1/6).