By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 11, 2010

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Grade: B+

The common line on documentaries is they exist to convey information. The trouble is that movies are a terrible way to convey information. It’s nearly impossible to offer more than a superficial understanding of a subject. Cinema creates an experience, a different way of seeing the world.

But for some reason, docs like Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass, are simple and are a rarity. Sometimes, it’s as though the less you learn, the better the documentary. And you learn very little watching Sweetgrass.

The film opens with shots of Montana mountains—immaculately composed shots held long enough to make you notice how much time has passed. Get used to it: The film simulates for the viewer the nonpace of country life.

The sheep are heading off to the mountains for summer pasture. But we’re denied the nature-doc staples: no music, no soothing narration by Morgan Freeman and, best yet, no anthropomorphizing. What we learn, we learn from the images and sounds the filmmakers have decided to show us, or from chatter between farmhands.

The filmmakers and subjects never communicate; the only one to acknowledge the camera is a sheep who, just before the title card, stops eating to stare down the lens. The structure, toggling between mega-minimalism and rough-and-tumble handheld shots, creates a transporting experience.

But even without a narrator a theme emerges. About halfway through, the filmmakers’ attention drifts from sheep to man, specifically an aging, Norwegian cowboy on what we’re later told is the last such trip. Save for a couple moments (a younger cowboy, whining to his mother mid-trip on a cell phone), the filmmakers don’t convey this idea visually.

Oddly, Sweetgrass is at its best when it’s not about anything—when it’s observing man, beast and nature in harmony, or nudging us that the old cowboy is as intelligible as his charges.

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