Time Out New York Project: Issue #744/745, December 31, 2009–January 13, 2010
Dirs. Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor. 2009. N/R. 101mins. Documentary.
Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s documentary (which played at the most recent New York Film Festival) never tops its precredits sequence: Languorous images of Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth Mountains give way to an extended view of a sheep contentedly eating grass. The animal chews and chews for what seems like several minutes, then suddenly stops and looks smack-dab into the camera for an uncomfortably long time. It’s tempting to imagine the creature is endowed with human emotions, but the truth is that there’s nothing in its dead-eyed gaze beyond involuntary instinct.
That’s the perfect note on which to begin Sweetgrass, which turns out to be a requiem for a lost way of life. Beginning in 2001, Barbash and Castaing-Taylor filmed a family of sheepherders — whose business is now defunct — taking the animals into the mountains for summer pasture. As subcultural anthropology, it’s unassailable. Yet the often ugly-looking DV aesthetic dilutes the cumulative effect. For every gorgeously low-res image (a blobby, white sea of sheep racing heedlessly toward their pen), there’s a correspondingly ineffectual visual or vista that one wishes had been captured with higher-end equipment and a keener cinematic eye.—Keith Uhlich