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By Jay Kuehner
So goes the soundscape of the Western frontier, virtually absent of commentary save for the alternately plaintive hymn and cry of man on the open plain and majestic mountain pass. Could it be that the great American film of the year is a painstaking documentary about…sheep? Roughly 3,000, give or take those not predatorily poached in the dark of night. And the two men, extant cowboys of nearly obsolescent labour, who tend the ranging stock over an arduous journey by hoof over Montana’s cragged Absaroka-Beartooth range for a final summer pasture. Supporting roles are provided by their faithful horses and dogs that, toward journey’s summit, have been worked to the bone and are “played out.”
Lest one think this is another bid for curiosity in the currently fertile documentary campaign, in which no subject proves too minor or obscure for attention, it’s worth considering that the theoretically overwhelming intent of Sweetgrass’ “recordists,” the term Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash prefer, is imperatively grounded in actual observation and a physically embedded presence. The recording of Sweetgrass entailed more than 200 hours of footage gathered beginning in the spring of 2001 by the roving Castaing-Taylor, whose apparatus-strapped torso, and innumerable synchronous microphones, gains astonishingly intimate access to both man and animal while provoking distraction only after having fallen asleep himself, rigged in to his camera as the footage rolls on. At one time the project was saddled with the less prosaic subtitle Becoming Animal, as if the camera might somehow physiologically appropriate the innately widescreen vision of broad-eyed sheep.
The work of Harvard academics Barbash and Castaing-Taylor—heretofore operating within the academic field of Visual Anthropology and Sensory Ethnography, as well as authoring texts on Transcultural Cinema—is informed with a sense of purpose that may seem anachronistic, even arch, by the slack standards that constitute a current film climate which privileges the sensational over the durational. Their work “seeks to conjugate the ambiguity and provocations of art with a documentary attachment to the immediate flux of lived experience.” If conjugations of art and the immediacy of real life seem intuitively at cross purposes, then primary among Sweetgrass’ manifold appeals is the means by which it effectively takes its thesis out to pasture, vulnerable to nature, attentively ambivalent toward its subjects and the landscape that sublimely holds and cruelly resists them. In spite of its unsentimental approach, this is an inevitable elegy intended for a theatrical audience, a film that may serve as a critical link yoking the formal rigour of James Benning and Jean Rouch to the dramatic allure of a Discovery Channel episode. When’s the last time you saw a nature documentary at the New York Film Festival?
The film’s first frames depict a pastoral of Big Sky country dotted with vestiges of civilization—an abandoned pickup truck covered in snow, a trailer presumably inhabited by ranchers—before locking in on its subject: a sheep, earmarked, chomping on grass. In an uncanny turn it recognizes the camera and fixes its gaze upon us, wholly indifferent or in condemning judgment. It’s a fortuitous moment on which to commence a film, communicating at once the kind of ticklish levity of the child in a petting zoo and the epic sweep of human history with its folly of civilized sacrifice. Both sheep and men will furnish the ensuing chronicle with plenty of unforced humour, but it’s clear that Sweetgrass is taking its animals quite seriously.
We watch the aggressive shearing of the sheep in their stables and then, voyeuristically, a live birth that’s less Tulpan-style cinematic miracle than barnyard routine, as a lamb is ushered from its mother’s womb and promptly plucked from the hay floor. Their tails clipped and ears marked, the sheep are readied for pasture, prompting the film to take to the hills in tow to a couple of cowboys, whose divergent natures are gradually teased by contrast from the ovine-centric procession. The collective pass through the local town’s main street, rendered into a river of wool, is ironically otherworldly.
The physical toll of this labour is etched into the weathered face of veteran John, who comes to our attention while dozing off against a tree; while his younger sidekick Pat looks the part but is increasingly revealed to be not up to task. Together these two become default actors in the unfolding non-drama, less seen than heard: Sweetgrass’ field recording makes no concessions to the murmurings of these men, even as the camera cuts away to slow pans of the epic beauty of the setting. The juxtaposition is intentional, lending a parodic tone to the men’s near Beckettian exchanges, but the vernacular is distinctly working-class rural American. The risk of condescension is ultimately superseded by witnessing the undeniable dignity of the commitment these men bring to their work, an act of determined will to which its documenters wisely yielded.
In this Western in which the enemy Indian has all but vanished, only the unruly flock, and its predators of grizzlies, constitutes any real threat. Gunshots echoing into the wilderness prove ineffectual yet nonetheless index a history of frontier violence, now virtually absent from the native terrain and deployed overseas (a radio dispatch referencing soldier casualties barely registers). Where Man emerges in a less than flattering light against the reliably uncontrollable forces of nature, he leaves evidence of a particular ethos in the wake of his challenge. John’s endearment toward the sheep, all sweet “girls” and “darlings,” acts as a comforting lullaby (channelling Mickey Rooney more than John Wayne) compared to Pat’s streak of misogynistic vitriol; a “Get back up there you bitches!” approach to maintaining his charges. Still, one can’t help feel for the guy in a candidly broke-down moment which finds him sobbing to mommy on his cell, his gripes both given greater expression and belittled by the corresponding resolve of the camera’s leftward mountaintop pan.
There’s a lamentable irony to John’s warbling of “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” as it dawns that the implicit tautology of the refrain no longer holds true: this gruelling passage, the film’s posthumous insert informs, is the last of its kind, an undertaking soon to be obsolete by the more industrialized means of agri-business. Sweetgrass may be ambivalent in its pastoral evocation, but there seems little doubt that the entwined labour of these men and the fate of these sheep, cradled deep within an achingly beautiful landscape, has embedded itself into the untraceable record of its makers’ conscience. Accordingly, last light dapples like honey in the penultimate shot of sheep destined now for market, before ceding to a portrait of John whisked away in the strangeness of a truck, his eyes fixed on the uncertain road ahead.
Cinema Scope: So, in the beginning there was…sheep? What was the genesis of the film? Did it start with a landscape, a sheepherder, the animal itself?
Lucien Castaing-Taylor: It was really just serendipity and happenstance. We were living in Colorado and I was intrigued by Boulder. I got to thinking about how the West is the epicentre of both far-left strains in American culture—communities that are based on finding the inner self, setting up a commune and, I’m being facetious, dancing naked around a totem pole and surrounding themselves with joss sticks—while at the same time there are these far-right enclaves, communities that say fuck you to the government, want to get off the grid and not pay taxes, and surround themselves with munitions. I realized that these two communities may not talk, but they’re actually structural inversions of each other: they’re both extreme realizations of American individualism. The far-left wants the authentic inner self to be expressed without any socio-cultural fetters while the far-right wants to be free from subordination to the state. We were thinking about making a film that would tack between two of these communities, but finding them was…well, it didn’t turn out to be what we wanted. Meanwhile, we had heard about some survivalist sheepherders up in Montana. Finally, during lambing in 2001, I went to Montana and met this very different family of Norwegian descent who were the last to be still driving their band massive distances up into the mountains every summer, with a federal permit letting them graze on public land. I spent ten days there with a consumer camera, but I didn’t know at this point if there was a film. They were interesting, and the scale of the ranch was of a magnitude unimaginable to me as a European, so I decided it was worth investing a summer in. Because we had children we had to find a way to do it as a family. We thought initially the film would have to do with land rights, the so-called “neo-homesteading” and yuppification of Montana. In the end, the experience up in the mountains was so overwhelming that I knew I wanted to go back, and we decided instead to make a film about these sheepherders and the ranch. A film about sheep, but more than that, our relationship to nature; our acknowledgment of our relationship to another species. So much of it was born through happenstance. And much of the film happened in post-production.
Scope: You shot more than 200 hours?
Castaing-Taylor: We also thought it would be observational, even vérité in a sense. But if you look at cinéma vérité the average shot length is much shorter and there’s much less engagement with the aesthetics of the imagery. In Sweetgrass it’s up to four minutes a take. At the same time I was editing works of my own, installation pieces for gallery exhibition. One piece that I’m just finishing up, Hell Roaring Creek, is a single static shot at dawn. It’s so dark you can’t really see what’s going on, except that there’s a creek coming towards you, and then 3,000 sheep cross over in 30 minutes as the light comes up. And it’s cloudy, totally undramatic. It’s handheld but I tried to hold the camera as still as I could while standing in a creek. It’s a more structural piece, but in working this way the virtues of the long take crept up on us and changed the way Sweetgrass was edited.
Scope: The film’s original polemic changed, and in its place a kind of observational approach prevailed. A different thesis emerged; of course there’s man’s relationship to animals, the environment. But there’s this sense of the American West, just as in James Benning’s 13 Lakes (2004) or RR (2007), in which a portrait of industrialization is implied through absence, set against nature. I’m thinking of that scene in which the sheep parade through town, and it feels so foreign yet there’s a Radio Shack on that street.
Castaing-Taylor: It’s not there any more. The franchise went belly up the next year.
Scope: I’ve seen nominally similar films from China, such as Yu Guangyi’s Timber Gang (2006), and they’re transpiring in a part of the world that I may never see, nor economically or socially understand. Though the events of Sweetgrass are happening close to home, I don’t fully identify with the labour, but what the men are doing feels universally recognizable. Still, there’s this distinct sense of American vernacular. You’re an outsider: How did you identify with the sheepherder’s speech, and why did you let the voices emerge so thoroughly?
Castaing-Taylor: I guess this harkens back to your earlier question, and how we didn’t want to frame the film in some overtly political, propositional way about land rights. We ended up trying to be more phenomenological, you could say: evoking the lifeworld of the sheepherders as best we could, and to let that speak for itself, without any overt editorializing on our part. But not just the sheepherders—also the sheep, and especially the place itself. It’s out of fashion to see nature as anything other than some secondary cultural construction, but we’re all part of it, as much as city folks suppose otherwise, and throughout history humans and animals have commingled in ways that have deeply affected the kinds of beings we’ve become. But what phenomenologist ever considers the lifeworld of an animal? It’d be a joke. Yet at the same time, how can you not? Of course, sheep are totally over-determined mythologically. They’re the world’s proverbially dumbest animal, ridiculed by us for their supposed credulity, timidity, and stupidity. And at the same time they’re the paragon of innocence, especially in Abrahamic religions—the carefree gamboling lamb, Christ as agnus dei, the church as his flock, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Muhammad, and King David all being shepherds, the Passover lamb as Korban for Jews, and their annual sacrifice in Eid-al-Adha for Muslims, and so on. Culturally, and religiously, the symbolic significance of sheep is huge, and has been basically ever since we domesticated them in the Neolithic Revolution, 10,000 years ago. But when you’re with them, and especially day in day out in such close quarters up in the mountains, their allegorization just falls away, and you’re left encountering brute sheep, negotiating with them where to go, where to bed down, where to feed, whatever: you’re in this embodied relationship, resisting, cajoling, cohabiting together.
In many ways, the sheep stole Sweetgrass’ thunder, and I think we probably ended up doing a better job portraying their experience of their world than we did of the humans’. But of course the mountains are also huge, and in some ways the central character of the whole film, more so even than the sheep. While I was filming they were this kind of amazing space for me—at once utopian and dystopian—absurdly beautiful but also with a dark underbelly and the ever-present threat of violence: Tennyson’s nature, red in tooth and claw. And Sweetgrass is also about labour, of course. If I had to pinpoint a thesis of the film, it’s related to the pastoral—romanticism, Wordsworth and so on—but also about blowing apart all the conventions of the genre. Acknowledging the allure of the pastoral but also expressing some degree of ambivalence, when you realize it’s a fantasy, an expression of bliss or unity with the world, but one voiced by poets and rhapsodists and outsiders. For those whose lot in life is to live that fantasy, it’s anything but lovey-dovey. It’s an immense amount of work; the sheepherders are paid minimal salaries, they wear their bodies out; and you’re at the whim of the elements and the mercy of nature.
In terms of language, there are all these ethnicities at play: there is a county that is 70 percent Norwegian, another to the north is still 80% Scottish. Ethnicity is huge in these rural communities. Do you remember the first spoken dialogue in the film? It’s when the man is trying to call the ewes into the shearing yard, though you don’t know what it’s for until you see the next shot. You know, when he’s screen right, and the ewes are gradually leaving him, screen left, until all of a sudden the band charges into the frame en masse? This shot evokes for me Rabelais’ “moutons de Panurge,” who jump suicidally into the sea in Pantagruel, every time I see it. Anyway, the man calls to the ewes, “Kumbaday.” It’s almost a refrain. The Norwegians told me it was a remnant of the language that the homesteaders had brought over. The Irish told me it was a bastardization of “Come Paddy”! They’re both wrong. In England back in Stuart and Tudor days, if you had ducks you would shut them up in a coop away from foxes at night, and then feed them grain in the morning. You didn’t want to feed them right outside the coop, to keep the area clean, so you’d coax them to follow you. And in some valleys in the south of England you’d say “Coombidee.” A contraction of “Come, I bid thee!” Well, these 21st century Montanans are the last people on the face of the earth to be speaking this Stuart and Tudor vernacular.
But generally, much of the potential exoticism of the language, the Montanan vernacular, was surely lost on me. I was nativizing while I was on the shoot. I was not that attuned to language per se; I was aware that their culture and their relationship to themselves and the land was expressed through the way they talk, but I wasn’t that invested in it. Although it was enormously liberating to me to be working for the first time in a place where I could understand what was being said (Sharon Lockhart felt the same way after working in Japan and Brazil when she came home to shoot Pine Flat ), I was interested in making a piece in which language was not foregrounded. Especially in mainstream documentaries, there are always people telling you about their lives in some sort of post hoc extrapolation, but not actually living them. The “actuality” images are just fodder, reduced to the status of illustration. The irony of course is that in fiction films it’s the other way around: we mostly see people living their lives, rather than telling us about them, and so disavowing the presence of the camera. The nonfiction film is invested in portraying the depth of life as it’s actually lived, in which people’s performativity is not just a function of the camera’s presence; for me that’s richer than direct address or verbal testimonial.
In editing the sound, we worked with Ernst Karel, who’s a phonographer, experimental musician, and sound artist, and he came up with this six-track surround soundscape. In part because of the low quality of our recording equipment, but also because it was a deliberate aesthetic choice, much of the dialogue was unintelligible, like when they’re cussing at sheep. But the important thing is the affect, the emotion, the corporeal experience. It’s not about a verbal transcript. It’s more about at once the bestiality and the musicality of language than what is being intentionally “communicated” in some discursive sense. Our interest was skewed toward the affective colouration and the embodied engagement with the world rather than with understanding every word. That was also a political choice. Some people—educated urban middle-class non-Westerners—said we should subtitle the film, but there’s something about people not being able to fully understand others that makes a statement about a culture that is not completely transparent or accessible. What gives them the right to understand them?
Scope: The notion of corporeal engagement is registered acutely. Not only are you as a documentarian compelled to become more physically engaged, albeit under less obligation, but you are witness to a simple but arduous routine of labour. The toll is reflected particularly in John, in the weary tone of his voice and the weathered lines of his face. There’s such contrast between the two sheepherders, John and Pat: One tender and affectionate, riding low in his saddle, the other broken, practically misogynistic, and bitching. There’s something elegiacally cowboy though, a sense of the mythic West, the frontier. John is humming old cowboy tunes and they live in tents and light fires. There are even Indians, counting the faintest trace of arrowheads, which is a painful historic irony, merely a diversion for the cowboys.
Castaing-Taylor: In terms of the contrasting characters I think it’s an illusion, a function of the editing, unfortunately, because any film is reductive, a palimpsest of reality. We definitely intended there to be a tension between intimacy and violence, eroticism and misogyny, tenderness and aggression—all of these things being part and parcel of the fabric of our lives, of human existence, and definitely our relationship to other animals. That’s universal. But I see now how the film perpetuates a simplistic schema of the serene, laconic elder—John could be so loquacious and sweet with the sheep, but he pretty much clams up with humans—versus the younger man, pushed to his limits, who goes off on this bestial, logorrheic diatribe. But I totally adore the interspecies promiscuity of his rant, how in a split second he manages to morph the sheep in his charge into pigs, whores, darlings, girly girls, bitches, goat-climbing cocksucking motherfuckers…I’m just now completing another piece called Bedding Down, in which John is on horseback trying to bed sheep down for the night, and it’s one of the most diabolical things I’ve ever witnessed on screen! But if you think Sweetgrass maps this universal tension between aggression and tenderness onto its two main characters, well, it’s a weakness of the film. We wanted that polarity, but didn’t intend for each character to represent either end of it.
Scope: I thought of American primitivism. In the lullaby, the song, the vernacular, but there’s this critical distance with the disembodied voice. How did you decide to retain this, sourced sound that’s not in the frame? There’s a real power derived from this approach, as if the image was before me, the sound almost behind me, and I’m enclosed within the space of the frame, more participant than spectator.
Castaing-Taylor: I think this goes back to the difference between fiction and documentary. In traditional fiction films you’re immersed in the diegesis, just as in post-Rabelaisian novels, there’s this naturalistic sense of being there with the characters, which documentaries don’t push as far as they might. With Sweetgrass, we try to give you a sense of almost synaesthetic participation, and a lot of that comes from the sound, and from working with wireless lavs. The first year we used only four, listening to them up to a mile-and-a-half away. The second year I had eight. Mostly I put them on people, but occasionally I’d mike a horse, a dog, or a sheep. I couldn’t afford to do that as much as I’d have liked. While recording with headphones, if I had two sound sources, one in my left ear, one my right, they could be up to three miles apart, and if I could get a good quality signal, it was incredibly interesting, and at times the synchronicities were completely surreal. Though I think spectators will wonder if many of the soliloquies are non-synch voiceover—and we want them to wonder—all the spoken sound is essentially synched. (Ernst orchestrated a super-complex soundtrack, but we never messed with the sync speech, even if it was a mile or more from me and had ostensibly no relation to what I shooting.) There was this temptation to move the sound around in the interests of the rhythms, in the interests of cinema and “art.” But I’m a complete vulgar positivist about this. I wanted it to be ambiguous, whether it was a voice that was laid over or found within. It was empirically crude, but it matters to me in terms of documentary practice. Perhaps the most clichéd sequence is the lullaby scene when John is bedding down the sheep at dusk, and then he rides off on the horizon, screen right to screen left, in long shot, and he’s singing. Suddenly it’s broken up by him heeling his dog, “Get back!” You feel this is some abstract poetic space rather than a direct documentary record, until you realize it’s synch sound. We wanted that back and forth, from the seemingly mythological to gritty realism.
Scope: You’re an anthropologist, but this seems like the work of an accomplished filmmaker.
Castaing-Taylor: I went to college in England and was supposed to stay for a PhD in anthropology, but as George Bernard Shaw said, as soon as one Englishman opens his mouth another one hates him. In other words it’s a parochial island ridden by class warfare. I was 21 and ready to escape, and I applied to this hybrid program at USC that was half in cinema and half in anthropology. So it was interesting, living in South Central Los Angeles, learning to make film and video. I met Ilisa Barbash there, and we collaborated on a piece called In and Out of Africa (1992), about issues of authenticity, taste, and racial politics in the transnational African art trade, that we ended up editing in South Central in the wake of the Rodney King riots. So I can’t pretend to be a naïve or primitive filmmaker since I’ve had training, and in Colorado we were teaching film studies.
Scope: So would you describe Sweetgrass as a work of visual anthropology?
Castaing-Taylor: You should call it whatever you want to call it. Every ethnographic film festival has rejected it summarily. Ambiguity, or any kind of aesthetic opacity that isn’t readily translatable into the limpid clarity of expository prose, is somehow lacking for anthropologists, in their quest for “cultural meaning,” which they’re hell-bent on linguifying. And as often as not, out of all recognition. Clarity for me is an illusion, a product of a certain kind of cultural textology. I’m never clear about anything; are you? Isn’t cognitive and sensory muddle the human condition? I’m not desperate for Sweetgrass to be recuperated as a work of visual anthropology, but simply because it doesn’t tell you what it’s about, and because there aren’t that many words in it, doesn’t for me mean it isn’t a work of anthropology. It actually feels profoundly so to me, but maybe a more philosophical anthropology. And if I’m to take your question precisely—is the film “anthropo-logy”?—I guess I would say that Sweetgrass tries to relativise both the anthropos and its logos.
Scope: And it’s not pedagogical per se, as the line of inquiry is experiential. Is this why you call yourself a recordist as opposed to director?
Castaing-Taylor: It goes back to this notion of our investment in the empirical, and synch sound. For instance, we never asked anybody to do anything. With the camera, I tried to insinuate myself into a position of insignificance, so I wasn’t affecting what was going on in front of the camera, but I also didn’t want anyone to pretend I wasn’t there. So to say I was ”directing” is misleading. I prefer “registered by” but it’s too machine-like! “Realized by” sounds OK in French, but it’s risible in English. Recorded by is more humble, which seems only appropriate. We’ve actually never discussed it, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the people making work in Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab are opting for “recorded by”…There’s a way in which nonfiction films seek to appropriate the prestige of fiction with the whole “directed by” business, which is another reason to drop it.
Scope: In a sense the sheep take over.
Castaing-Taylor: There’s a critique of the film that we failed the humans miserably. I fear that’s half right. I was aware of a shift in the film from nature to culture, animals to humans, as the piece evolved during editing, and once we became aware of it, we worked it quite deliberately. All the opening snow shots and the shearing sequence were placed at the end of the film all the way through years of post-production; we brought them to the beginning only very late on.
Scope: The ending, with John in that truck, suggests that this may be more about him, and the uncertainty of his future and by extension his job.
Castaing-Taylor: I don’t think it suggests it’s about him alone, at least we hope it won’t be taken that way. It’s uncertain, sure, because it’s unclear what he’s returning to, what the future holds in store for him. But he’s also a prism by this point for the larger community, a whole way of life, which, if you hadn’t already gathered, you’re about to learn from the following intertitle, in a classic trope of salvage ethnography, is over, finito: no more sheepherding in the mountains, the twilight of a whole chapter, the chapter in many ways, of the American West. So it’s about the uncertainty of a collective future. It was really hard for me to be reconciled to having that shot at the end—to ending on a human, I mean—and I was only able to come around to it with the proviso that we’d also have the shot of the mountains over the end credits. And then the credits are also absurdly long. This was a deliberate choice—there are hardly any “characters” in the movie, yet hundreds are thanked. It’s a memorial to the community, to all who participated in the filmmaking, but also to the contemporary community as the heritor of a way of life, a way of being-in-the-world, that is now history. It’s bearing witness to them and their lives. But as the inscription of names is rolling, the sound is just of the mountains in the fall, with the odd elk bugling but freed from sheep and humans: it’s the wilderness returned to its condition when humans and domesticated animals were not there. There is a huge disjuncture between this and all that has come before it, especially the scene in the truck. Of course, since it’s the end credits, the spectators are half out the door already, so it’s probably all moot.