Sunday, September 26, 2010

In Sweetgrass, noisy sheep and frustrated cowboys are the stars

I wear clothing made of wool but I do not spend a lot of time around sheep, and I bet you $100 you are the same as me. But you need sheep to get wool, and people to take care of the sheep, and as a result there is a whole world, out west, of people whose job is to grow the sheep so they can grow the wool.

The business of wool is not the subject of Sweetgrass: the sheep are, and to some extent the people taking care of the sheep. Most of the movie follows two cowboys -- one old, lined-faced and taciturn, one young and more expressive -- as they herd the sheep through the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains in Montana and a little bit of Wyoming. It is a great movie and you should watch it on Netflix Watch Instantly as soon as you get a little time to devote to sheep.

Sweetgrass does its best work in close close-up or from incredibly far away: the tight shots of the sheep are fascinating but so are the mountain's-eye views of the herd as they're coaxed along and herded by the men on horses and their dogs. The landscape is beautiful, the pacing is deliberate, and there is more visual wit and flair than you might expect from a movie about herding sheep. (Though the digital film quality can be a little harsh at times -- for the majestic mountain vistas, you wish it were on Malickesque high-resolution 65 mm film. On the other hand it proves the point that a good eye and ability to go where the story are more important than technics.)

A great moment right at the beginning of the film: In close-up, a sheep idly chews cud. The bell around his neck rings a little as he moves his jaw. This goes on for awhile. Then he slowly turns his head, notices the camera and abruptly stops chewing, staring straight at us, head cocked to the side a little, waiting.

The sheep spread out some when they're grazing on the craggy face of a mountain, but when they move at least they really do seem to prefer to be together, in tight, tight herd. There is a poetry to the way they move, like a school of fish, although as we learn, getting them going is no effortless thing. And they are mad loud: The bleating seems to be constant.

Because there is no voiceover narration or any other form of exposition, really, to let us know where we are and what is happening, there are a bunch of questions that present themselves to the viewer. Here are a handful of answers, gleaned from Google: The herd the cowboys are working with comprises about 3,000 sheep. The drive that takes them out to pasture on a federal grazing permit was the last of its kind, and happened in 2001. The younger cowboy is named Pat Connolly and the older cowboy is named John Ahern.

In its second half, the story shifts from being mostly about sheep to being mostly about the cowboys. There is a striking scene where Connolly calls his mom from the top of a mountain and vents his frustrations with the long days, the toll on his body and his dog's body, the difficulty wrangling 3,000 ornery sheep and shooting at the black bears who come in the night to eat them.

"I'd rather enjoy these mountains than hate 'em," he says. "And it's getting to the point now that I hate 'em."

He's whining, yes, but you can understand where he's coming from, and it's a nice counterpoint to "home on the range" homily. Similarly, the scene where Connolly's mic captures him shouting all manner of nasty profanities at the sheep as he drives them up a mountain seems eminently understandable. You can see how the months-long drive could cause you to hate sheep, and hate mountains, and be ready to be home. Maybe that's why they cheer when they arrive in town at the end of that last drive, even though it means their jobs will no longer exist.

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