RADICAL APPROACHES to the COMPLEXITIES of Today's Film and Media, with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.
Ruminating on Sweetgrass
Liminality is the order of the day in cinema, especially independent cinema. The once seemingly distinct histories of documentary and avant-garde film have become so interlaced that by the spring of 2009 the graduate students in cinema at the University of Iowa could announce an “Avant-Doc” conference without worrying that the title might confuse. Canonical avant-garde filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Peter Kubelka, James Benning, Peter Hutton, and Su Friedrich are increasingly seen as (also) documentary filmmakers; and “documentaries” likeTaiga (1992, Ulrike Ottinger), Our Daily Bread (2005, Nikolaus Geyrhalter), The Shape of the Moon (2005, Leonard Retel Helmrich), and On the Third Planet from the Sun (2006, Pavel Medvedev) feel as much like avant-garde films as documentaries.
One of the most remarkable cinematic projects that has developed within this liminal zone has produced Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass (2009), a work of self-confessed salvage ethnography that documents the final moments of a century-old practice in the American west, plus a series of eight installation works by Castaing-Taylor. Sweetgrass is a bit more obviously a documentary; the installation works, a bit more obviously avant-garde. Near the end of Sweetgrass, two intertitles explain, “Since the late nineteen century Western ranchers and their hired hands have ranged animals on public lands for summer pasture. In 2003, over three months and one hundred and fifty miles, the last band of sheep trailed through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains.” Sweetgrass uses no narration, no music, no explanatory intertitles other than the two I just quoted; like a James Benning film, it allows us to meditate on places and moments. It is a “Western” about cowboys that involves no shoot-outs and no romance. It is a nature film that refuses that genre’s conventional distinction between “nature” and human culture, in order to reveal the intermingled lives and bodies of the sheep and the sheep-herders, or as Castaing-Taylor puts it, of the “sheeple” involved in the epic trek of thousands of sheep into and out of the mountains and the harvest of wool. The installation works focus on particular moments in the lives of sheep and sheepherders. Hell Roaring Creek (2010), for example, is a twenty-minute minimalist piece during which we watch them cross a creek as morning dawns in the mountains; the camera is situated in the middle of the creek and we experience this moment in real time, and surrounded by the dramatic sound-scape created by the creek, the sheep, and sheepherders and their dogs.
At the time when they began the Sweetgrass project, both Barbash and Castaing-Taylor were teaching at the University of Colorado, where they were regular attendees at Stan Brakhage’s salon. Barbash had studied visual anthropology at the University of Southern California with Timothy Asch; she is currently a curator of visual anthropology at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. Castaing-Taylor, also a student of visual anthropology at USC, was editor of Visual Anthropology Review from 1991-1994, and has published Visualizing Theory (Routledge, 1994) andTranscultural Cinema, essays by David MacDougall (Princeton, 1998), and with Barbash, Cross-Cultural Filmmaking (California, 1997) and The Cinema of Robert Gardner (Berg, 2008); he teaches Visual and Environmental Studies and Anthropology at Harvard and heads Harvard’s new “Sensory Ethnography Laboratory.” I interviewed Barbash and Castaing-Taylor with my history of documentary class at Harvard in April, 2009; and the three of us have expanded that conversation on-line.
MacDonald: Could you each talk a bit about your background: how you got into film and how you came to work together? In and Out of Africa was your first film; how did that project develop? And what accounts for the gap between it and your re-entry into filmmaking withSweetgrass?
Barbash: I grew up loving the movies, but it never really occurred to me that an ordinary person could make them. When I got out of college I was interested in journalism, but this was during the arts cable channel boom in New York City, and it was easier to get a freelance job in television production than it was at a newspaper. At a certain point I realized that I didn’t want to climb the ladder to be a small part of a large production organization so I went back to school, to the Master’s Program in Visual Anthropology at the University of Southern California, where I learned some of the technical skills necessary to be part of a small film crew. There I met Lucien who was escaping his own insular world in England. We were part of a cohort of about eleven students, and Lucien and I started working together. In and Out of Africa was our thesis video, a discursive collage on authenticity, taste, and racial politics in the transnational African art market.
We had originally intended to make a single-channel video about the cultural effects of tourism on the Dogon of Mali. We’d been there a few times and had a number of contacts, both African and European. But about three months before we were to shoot, there was a coup d’état in Mali, which of course meant no tourists. So we shifted gears. At the time, Lucien was editing the journal Visual Anthropology Review, and had published an article by a doctoral student, Chris Steiner, whose dissertation research was on Hausa Muslim art traders in the Ivory Coast. We called him up and asked if he knew any who were trading between the Ivory Coast and New York. Chris introduced us to Gabai Baare in New York and that summer Chris, Lucien and I met up on the Ivory Coast to film. Of course there were obvious differences between our original and our ultimate project. But what we were really interested in—exploring the various ways in which Africans and Europeans/Americans look at each other, the ways in which they represent themselves to each other and the ways in which they internalize all these representations—remained the same.
The gap between In and Out and Sweetgrass was much longer than we’d have liked. The reasons are mundane. Having vowed never to return to academia, Lucien did a doctorate in anthropology! For that we lived in Martinique for two and a half years, during which time we wrote Cross-Cultural Filmmaking and collaborated with Isaac Julien on the film Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask . We moved twice, because of new jobs, started a family, and wrote and edited a number of books. I had a six month battle with head and neck cancer, which consumed all our energy for a year or more.
Each of the films was informed by a long period of reflection and revision, about what we liked and didn’t like in documentary, what we knew and didn’t know, and what we thought might be possible. I’m not sure whether we’d have been able to make Sweetgrass soon after making In and Out of Africa, even if all the funding and logistics had been in place. It takes us a long time not just physically to make a film, but also to be ready to try something new.
MacDonald: I’ve seen Sweetgrass in various forms over the past couple of years. You’ve been working on it for nearly a decade. Could you tell me how this project has evolved?
Barbash: We were living and teaching in Boulder, Colorado, when the project came to us. There was a New Jersey/Wisconsin newspaper owner, Bill Heaney, who was leasing land to Lawrence Allestad, the owner of the sheep in the film, at a point when Lawrence’s deeded land was drying up because of drought and changing weather patterns. Lawrence would graze this land during fall and spring, and then follow an eighty-year plus tradition of trailing his sheep up into the Beartooth-Absaroka range near Yellowstone, every summer. He had a family permit that had been passed down over four generations of Norwegian descendants. One day the sheep owner said to the land owner, “This is the last time I’m ever going to do this; someone should make a film about me,” and word traveled, eventually to us in March of 2001, and we thought it sounded like a wonderful project. We had small children so we didn’t want to travel very far. That summer, we went up through Wyoming to Montana with the family and a babysitter and her dog, and started shooting.
Castaing-Taylor: As Lisa said, we were living in the Rockies, and were interested in the so-called New West (the wunderkind scholar Patti Limerick was a colleague in Boulder), especially the changes wrought by yuppification, with all the neo-homesteaders—rich hobby farmers—moving in and buying up the land as a playground for their kids and guests for a few weeks every summer. It was a chance, or a challenge, for us to engage anew with “salvage ethnography”—how to represent a world on the wane—something that’s been considered totally retrograde within anthropology since the 1960s. Could we acknowledge a historical loss, without falling prey to all the pitfalls of patronizing romanticism and nostalgia?
MacDonald: When you say that the tradition of salvage ethnography has been intellectually discredited, to what extent do you feel that that negates the value of the films of crucial contributors to cinematic salvage ethnography like John Marshall and Robert Gardner?
Castaing-Taylor: Maybe it does negate their value. But is that all wrong? They remained committed to visual salvage anthropology long after written anthropology, critical theory, and art practice more generally had moved on and turned their attention to hybridizing, globalizing cultural formations in various states of emergence and becoming.
Marshall’s early sequence films among the !Kung are still remarkable, when I watch them today, not least for their unselfconscious structural rigor in a filmmaker who never, to my knowledge, had any interest in the avant-garde—as is the mythopoetic Hunters , in a totally different register. A Joking Relationship  is extraordinary in its coupling of the erotic and the ethnographic. But Marshall was an uneven cinematographer and a rather sloppy filmmaker. His magnum opus, A Kalahari Family, is all over the place, stylistically and substantively.
MacDonald: In the early 1970s, I had the good fortune to take a one-week intensive course on ethnographic film from Marshall (for several years the University Film Association sponsored summer courses at Hampshire College); to my surprise, he opened that course with Peter Kubelka’s flicker film, Arnulf Rainer . He did have some awareness of avant-garde filmmaking.
Castaing-Taylor: Gardner lost interest in anthropology early on, and has never really done ethnographic fieldwork of his own, but in a typical cinematic division of labor, has borrowed from the anthropological expertise of others—among the Dani, the Hamar, the Wodaabe, and also in Benares. His one masterpiece, for me, is Forest of Bliss , and I doubt it will seem any less of an achievement a century from now. But the anachronistic discourse of Dead Birds, and its divine cinematographic omniscience—if not falling afoul of the pathetic fallacy, then at least exemplifying a kind of pathetic infallibility—has been an embarrassment to anthropologists for decades. The purple prose voice-over imprisons the Dani within some sublimated, dehistoricized, deeply racialized Stone Age formaldehyde that was concocted in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Even Gardner’s later Deep Hearts and the cinematographically mind-blowing Rivers of Sand  display almost no evidence of modernity, or of any coevality between the Hamar, the Peul, and their imagined spectators.
Barbash: I disagree. I don’t think those developments you mentioned negate the value of these films at all. Certainly the Marshall family was aware that they were filming a world on the wane, and were careful not to film things like Coke bottles (a la The Gods Must be Crazy ) in their work. In retrospect, we can criticize them for not being more upfront about their subject positions and the effect of their presence on their communities in their 1950s-1970s films and ethnographies. But that’s applying contemporary standards to work done fifty-odd years go. And since then, John, Lorna and Elizabeth Marshall have acknowledged the changes in the lives of the !Kung that were occurring as they did their research; John, especially in his Kalahari Family series.
Nobody sees these films outside of a classroom any more, and there they remain valuable approximations of what life what like for hunter-gatherers in the 1950s. Were the !Kung “untouched” when the Marshalls arrived? No. Are these real !Kung in their films? Yes. Is this pretty close to what their lives were like? Probably.
What’s delighted me about anthropology since I first started studying it is that at least since the mid-1980s we’ve learned that we can’t look at any kind of representation without being critical of it, and without second-guessing the ideological inclinations and personal motivations, conscious and unconscious, of the author of the ethnography. I’m not sure every other discipline reflects on itself to the same degree.
A close examination of the work of Gardner taught me this as well as anything else: that a work of ethnography emerges from the originating culture, that of the filmmaker, and is inevitably a product of its time. If you are looking for a single truth, you are not going to find it in one of Gardner’s films. But that doesn’t mean you’re not going to get anything of value from that representation.
MacDonald: Sweetgrass is not the only film to come out of your sheep-herding project.
Castaing-Taylor: No. Actually, it’s the ninth piece, but it’s the longest, and the one Lisa and I made together. I’m finishing the others now, but unlike Sweetgrass they’re intended more for gallery exhibition than theatrical. Originally we imagined we were shooting a single vérité documentary about these sheepherders’ lives. We ended up becoming so engrossed that we, all of us as a family, spent three summers there. I was on a sabbatical during this period, so during 2001-2002 I was spending three or four days out of every week or two, year round, up there—all the winter sequences, the shearing and the lambing, were shot during that time. We shot in Montana between 2001 and 2007, but far more intensively in the early years before we moved to Boston. Had we not moved east, we’d probably still be shooting. Why stop?
Barbash: The majority of the footage you see in Sweetgrass was shot that first summer—the whole trajectory of going up into the mountains and coming back down. In retrospect, this surprises me because you would think that as you get to know people better, you’re going to get more interesting, more intimate footage. Instead, what happened was that, summer by summer, we had to work harder to get good footage. Lucien shot much more the first summer than he did the second two summers, though the footage he shot later did help us fill in some gaps.
Also, over the three summers the hired hands working with the sheep changed, and that made it difficult to integrate the three years. The first summer’s footage had John and Pat, the two herders you get to know in the film; during the second summer Pat worked with someone else and was becoming discouraged with the whole sheep-herding endeavor. He was exhausted, homesick, had a girlfriend back home he missed, and was doing the bulk of the work himself. That’s when he went up to the top of the mountain and complained to his mother that he just couldn’t handle it anymore. So that sequence is from the second summer. There’s almost nothing in the film from the third summer. All of the stuff from other seasons, all the birthing and shearing and the hay being spewed out onto the landscape, was shot between the first summer and the second summer.
MacDonald: How often did you need to have the herders, or others, re-enact things they did?
Castaing-Taylor: I don’t think we staged anything. We didn’t interview anybody either, at least when the camera was rolling—though when I wasn’t shooting I probably drove them spare with my asinine questions. But it would have been antithetical to both the aesthetics and the ethics we were after to have asked anyone to re-enact anything just for the camera. Sometimes something happened and I missed it and I would pray that they would do it again—invariably in vain—but we never directed action, even in cases where it could conceivably look as if we did.
Barbash: The one scene for which we most prepared was the shot of the sheep going through town. For that we had two cameras going the first year. I was on the roof of a Land Rover shooting down the street from above and Lucien was on the ground shooting tracking shots. I focused way down the street toward the railroad tracks to catch the sheep coming up onto the horizon and crossing the tracks. As it was a super long shot, it seemed to take forever. And then as the sheep came closer I spied Lucien in the corner of the frame, wearing his harness, walking and shooting alongside Lawrence. Of course we could not do a second with three thousand sheep in the middle of town! Jump cut to the next summer. Again on or around July 5 we got up at 4:30 in the morning, got both cameras ready, quickly drove to the center of town to set up the shot, and then I realized that in our rush, I had forgotten my camera! Lucien filmed down from the Land Rover roof and that’s the shot in the film.
MacDonald: What was your relationship with the herders; they seem amazingly at ease around you, and yet, you must be kneeling on the ground right in front of them as you’re filming. They do mention you once when you’re in the tent at one point; and at the end of the phone call scene, Pat seems to talk to you about his “phone booth,” but generally your presence is not remarked by John and Pat.
Castaing-Taylor: There’s a weird moment when we’re all in the cook tent. After you hear a snore, John says to Pat that he has made it so hot in the tent that “Lucien fell asleep.” Technically, even epistemologically, that’s so bizarre as to be borderline incomprehensible. It’s definitely thought-provoking. How can the camera operator have fallen asleep? Well, as it happens, I really had, but the camera was on my lap and my right hand was still on the handle, and the camera was just mindlessly rolling on, recording away. It’s a reflexive moment, but not your garden-variety documentary mise-en-abîme.
Another moment that bowls me over is right after Pat’s phone conversation with his mother, when his cell battery gives out. He turns to me and says “I love to torment her.” That remark speaks volumes, and you immediately have to rethink the whole sequence you’ve just seen. Was his vulnerability before his mother not genuine? Was he hamming it up for attention, and if so, hers, on the end of the line, or mine, behind the camera? Or is he making light of it to cloak his vulnerability? I rather think the latter, which only adds more pathos to the scene. There are various other moments when I’m acknowledged, explicitly or implicitly, but you’re right that, stylistically, we chose not to belabor them.
Most of our subjects knew each other well, which affected how comfortable they were around the camera. And being at eleven or twelve-thousand feet in the mountains for two-three months, looking after three thousand sheep, controlling where they graze and trying to protect them from predators, tending camp day in day out, with nobody but two guys and the animals to talk to, it’s amazing how quickly you get intimate. We had extended conversations about Uncle Snooks and Aunt Edna; John and Pat mapped their conjugal relations; I would tell them about growing up in Liverpool and life in Europe—there were some fantastic conversations that didn’t get into Sweetgrass. Pat and I are about the same age, and have kids the same age, but I was a foreigner who had never even set foot in Montana before starting this project; John is maybe twenty years older, has spent more time herding sheep, and is a Vietnam Vet. We had more than enough to talk about.
I think a number of things contributed to their apparent indifference to the camera. One is that when I wasn’t filming, when I didn’t have the camera on me, I was working as they were, or at least trying to help out as best I could. I was a greenhorn; I didn’t know sheep, had never ridden a horse before, and so on—so I was their apprentice in many ways. Obviously I had to learn fast. But I was not only a greenhorn, I was a foreigner, and had a funny, barely comprehensible British accent. I must have seemed like an alien to them, and my project might have seemed as alien as I was.
I remember when I first went out there, during lambing of 2001, before we’d met: I was on the phone with Lawrence Allestad, the rancher who owns the sheep and the grazing allotment, and I could tell he wasn’t understanding a word I was saying. Finally he said, “Hold on a second, I’ll get my wife; she speaks English. I’m a ‘Wegian.” Since the second world war, rural Montanans of Norwegian descent have felt more and more displaced by political-economic developments, as their family-oriented ranching culture has withered away; and they have sometimes internalized a sense of their own inferiority. It’s terribly sad when a culture or subculture that perceived itself as the center of its own universe gets progressively marginalized. One of the later scenes to end up on the cutting room floor was a story about a ‘Wegian kid who believed it was illegal for ‘Wegians to go to college.
Also, the camera was a gargantuan shoulder-mounted monstrosity that was suspended from a spring and aluminum bar that came up my spine and extended over my head—to help lower the center of gravity and take some of the pressure off my arms. It cut off 180 degrees of my vision, and blocked out half my face. And because I almost never lowered it from my shoulder, even when eating around the fire or herding the sheep, it became almost a prosthetic extension of my body, and I, I suppose, a kind of cyborg. Paradoxically, because it was so visible, with no possibility of dissimulation, the camera became part of the fabric of our daily lives and everyone tended to ignore it.
Contrary to what you’d expect, the effect is almost the inverse of what happens with small home video cameras, especially now that they have fold-out LCD screens—you can tell immediately whether these new cameras are recording or not, which results in this self-conscious performativity on the part of subjects. We were mostly interested in ways our subjects would reveal dimensions of themselves when they weren’t explicitly or exclusively acting out for the camera.
Barbash: The Montanans we worked with are used to going on trail-riding expeditions and hunts with East Coast dudes, and they make fun of how lame they are. I think the fact that Lucien walked up the mountain, for the most part holding an incredibly heavy camera, while other people were riding, was a kind of endurance test that he passed quite well; they could see that he was not some wimpy East Coaster.
Castaing-Taylor: I don’t know about that.
Another thing is that when I did have the camera on me and was shooting, I wouldn’t interact with them; I wouldn’t answer any questions or talk. Because they knew that I was working in my own way, and because they had a respect for work, they would stop trying to interact with me. If we were bedding the sheep down or something, we’d exchange a minimum of information through the walkie-talkies we all carried—which ended up being acoustically prominent in the sound track of Sweetgrass—but they soon realized I wasn’t very good company when I was holding the camera.
MacDonald: One thing that troubles me about Sweetgrass is a technological issue. When I saw the blow-up to 35mm at the Flaherty seminar and again, at the New York Film Festival, the most epic landscape shots often seemed to break down a bit. I didn’t notice this when I originally saw the material on DVD before the blow-up, and I assume this is a function of the limitations of the video technology you had in the early 2000s. Could you talk about your struggles to get this film looking its best?
Castaing-Taylor: You’re such a snob. But I agree, it was unwatchable in Alice Tully Hall. The screen is too large, and it’s also a multi-purpose space, with red lights from the aisles shining on the screen. Incredible! But it looked fantastic at Film Forum, where the cinema screens are probably smaller than some people’s private plasma screens on the Upper East Side. What can I say? We had no money. With our kind of uncontrolled, unscripted methodology, we knew we’d end up with a high shooting ratio. We had no choice but to shoot it on standard definition NTSC digital video. We used three cameras, but almost all of it was shot on a 3 2/3” CCD DVCAM camera, a really excellent model that no student today would touch with a ten-foot barge pole. “Standard” definition video has 480 lines of horizontal resolution—actually two interlaced fields of 243 lines. “High” definition, which wasn’t yet available, has 720, 1080, or more
Blowing up a standard def NTSC signal to 35mm is never straightforward. Pedro Costa’s Lisbon trilogy, and a number of his other works, were shot on PAL DV, which is superior to NTSC, but still a far cry from the equivalent native resolution of analog 35mm film, which is usually reckoned as somewhere around 15-18,000 pixels. Costa is often shooting in low light, with very high contrast ratios, yet his work looks out of this world. He told me about his colorist, Patrick Lindenmaier, who’s based in Zurich, and has hand-built the most advanced digital-to-film transfer facilities in the world. I sent Patrick a rough cut of Sweetgrass on DVD, and when he saw the shot of the newly shorn sheep shivering in the snow, he agreed to work with us, but warned us that he could only do so much. To the extent that Sweetgrass is watchable at all is in large part due to his efforts. We spent two long weeks in Zurich and Bern doing final post-production and film-out. But when Sweetgrass premiered in Berlin, on the largest screen in that obscene shrine to unfettered post-unification global capital, Potsdamer Platz, I looked at Patrick halfway through the screening, and he had his head in his hands, eyes averted from the screen. Even 35mm film resolution doesn’t hold up at that size. Big Sky is God’s country, and it wasn’t made to be rendered on standard def. But beggars can’t be choosers.
Barbash: I would add that I don’t think that anyone with a 35mm camera rig would have gotten up into these mountains and been able to film all that went on, so from the get-go it was obvious that there would be some technical compromises.
MacDonald: Lucien, I’ve heard you say that Sweetgrass is more interested in the sheep than the humans. Could you talk about this?
Castaing-Taylor: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t trust anything I say about the film. The other day at a Q and A after a screening, I even found myself reciting something from a review as if it was my own take on the film! If we could say in words what the film—our collaborator Ernst Karel prefers “vilm,” as an umbrella term to encompass video and film, by analogy with “photograph,” which doesn’t discriminate against digital or analogue—if we could say in words what the vilm is about, we wouldn’t have had to make it.
But I think Sweetgrass is interested in both the sheep and the people, or more precisely their intertwined naturecultures within the context of their larger ecological fold. Sheep and humans have existed uneasily with each other since we first domesticated them in Mesopotamia ten-thousand-odd years ago in the Neolithic Revolution; they were quite possibly the first domesticated livestock animal in history. They gave humanity our first staple proteins: milk and meat. Not to mention their skins, for shelter—and a couple of thousand years later, also their wool. They wouldn’t exist without us, and couldn’t survive without us, because of the way we’ve bred them (to maximize both birth weight and the number of live births) over the millennia. So I don’t think you can distinguish between “people” and “sheep.” It’s more that we’re so many variations of sheeple.
But it’s true that while we started off more interested in the herders, and their relationships to their animals and the land, I do feel the sheep crept up on us and in a way stole the film. I hadn’t given much thought to the aesthetics of sheep before, never mind their lifeworld, the phenomenology of sheep. Come to think of it, the Christian iconography of lambs and sheep (Jacob, David, Isaac, Abraham, Moses, and of course Mohammed, were all shepherds, don’t forget) had probably inured me to sheep as a subject. But it’s hard not to spend countless hours herding and filming them in the back of beyond without starting to think about their subjectivities, and also of course their objectivities—their appearance. I find their bodies fascinating just to look at.
Western thought from the Greeks on, and especially after Descartes, has been hell bent on setting humanity apart from animalia. Linnaeus was the one exception—as he put it in his Systema naturae in reference to the Cartesian conception of animals as so many soulless automata mechanica, “Cartesius certe non vidit simios.” Evidently Descartes never saw a monkey! Linnaeus was dead right. The same has held true ever since, from Heidegger, for whom animals inhabited an “environment,” but never a “Welt,” a world, through Benjamin, Levinas, Lacan, even Derrida—who tried harder than anyone to turn the theoretical tables on the human/animal dyad in his last book, L’animal que donc je suis, but failed miserably. His efforts to extend any ontological density to animalia never went any further than the disquiet he felt before his cat—hischatte, his pussy, as he insists—as she beheld his limp bitte in his Parisian apartment.
In any event, in some way Sweetgrass does seek to anthropomorphize sheep, and simultaneously to bestialise humanity. I think Dewey was dead right in his 1934 Art as Experience where he insisted that the best art recouples us with our base, bestial selves, and yokes culture back to nature, and the human to the live animal. Most social theory now supposes that “nature” is just some secondary elaboration, a cultural construction—Bruno Latour has argued that the concept of nature has been coopted by the singular authoritative voice of capital-S Science and should therefore be abolished altogether—but that’s pure poppycock, postmodernism of the most parochial kind.
Barbash: I’d like to propose that the dogs are the unsung heroes and heroines of the film. They function on all sorts of levels, as real helpmates, as physical extensions of the herders, and as their psychological mirrors. There are at least two kinds of dogs in the film. There are the herders—border collies. They’re working dogs but are like pets, played with, and have names: Coco, Breck, Tommy dog, Lena, and my favorite, Maybe. They take commands, as many as two in order. And they can be directed to round up masses of sheep, corral strays, push a herd forward. These dogs seem to function as emotional extensions of the people. When all is chaotic, Lena seems to be running out of control. Breck won't follow John the way he would like. When Pat is at the end of his tether, Tommy dog needs an affectionate pat and a drink of water.
Then there are the big white dogs, five Great Pyrenees and one Turkish Akbash. These are the guard dogs. They are raised with the sheep and are not treated like pets. They don't have names; in many ways, they’re almost feral. They live and sleep with the sheep, and will protect them as long as the sheep are alive and healthy. In fact, you may notice that they even allow the sheep to push them around a bit. They will fight to the death defending their flock against a bear. But right after the cell phone call, when we know that things are falling apart, we see the white dogs snarling at each other, tearing apart the carcass of a sheep. They're always hungry, and the moment one of their charges is dead, well, she becomes meat. They reflect the dramatic, and now very dark, tenor of the film. They remind me of the three old witches at the beginning ofMacbeth: "Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.”
MacDonald: In what ways did your thinking about humans and animals affect the structuring of Sweetgrass?
Castaing-Taylor: In both filming and later editing Sweetgrass, we became more and more invested in nature, both our identity within it and our experience of it. It’s no accident that the film begins in the domain of the sheep, and humans enter the fray only later and gradually. One of the most trenchant qualities invoked by philosophers and anthropologists as evidence of our separation from the animal kingdom has been our putative monopoly of language, which is why, when humans eventually do appear in Sweetgrass, they do so largely non-verbally. Other than AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” lyrics, which I worry are read as overtly allegorical, or as editorializing on our part, there are no intelligible spoken words during the shearing sequence.
The first spoken human word in Sweetgrass is the call of the shepherd trying to get the sheep to follow him into the shearing pen. He yells something unintelligible to non-locals, “Kumbudday.” When I first heard this, I asked what it meant. The Norwegians told me it was a bastardization of old Norwegian that their grandparent homesteaders had brought with them. The local Irish thought it was a corruption of “Come Paddy!” In fact they were both wrong. In certain valleys in the south of England in Stuart and Tudor days, when you let your ducks out of their coop in the morning, you would call for them to follow you so you could feed them grain, “Coom biddy, coom biddy.” It’s a contraction of “Come, I bid thee!” So to my knowledge these twenty-first century Montanans are the last people on earth to speak this Stuart and Tudor vernacular (I’ve certainly never heard any rural Brits use it).
The next human enunciation in Sweetgrass is in my favorite, and the longest, shot of the movie—when the woman in the night lambing shed is trying to coax the ewe to acknowledge and follow its lamb into a “jug,” a pen. She’s mimicking the sound of the lamb, and if you’re not a sheep person, you probably can’t be sure in this shot which sounds are ovine and which human. Mimicry of course is behind all communication, and is a much more profound form of commensality than propositional language. So here we have proto-language, uttered by a human imitating an animal, but we’re still delaying the introduction of language per se.
It’s interesting how slowly these “ideas,” or idea-images, if that is what they are, came to us. While nature loomed ever larger in my mind, not to mention my body, as we were filming, the structure of the film, which now seems so self-evident and conventional—basically just reflecting the narrative of the sheep drive to and from the mountains, as if it were somehow naturally secreted by the journey itself—was only created right at the end of editing. Originally all the snow footage that you see at the beginning, the sheep eating the cake, the unraveling of the hay bail, the shearing, came at the end. We wanted to end the film back in the domain of the sheep, relegating humanity to the periphery, beyond figure, and even beyond ground. But very late in the editing we shifted that material to the beginning. After the release of the journey down the mountain and the semi-closure of the train tracks and stock yards, it seemed too grueling for the spectator to be submitted to the shearing.
But this then left us ending on John and the other guy driving away in the pick-up, which was initially very hard for me to be reconciled to—ending on humans, I mean, the obsessive subject of cinema since its invention—after all we had done to try to relativize them and relocate them within a larger matrix of nature. And it seemed to hint at a kind of closure that was both specious (the humans’ future is in fact so uncertain, totally open-ended) and clichéd. But, by extending the shot for as long as possible, and thereby minimizing the significance of the already laconic dialogue in it, and then by extending it acoustically for as long again after the hard cut to black, I came around to it.
And it was important that after the main credits we return to the mountains, the view of the Beartooths from the Absarokas, but with a totally different soundscape: it’s fall, elk are bugling (an eery sound that most cityfolks can’t identify), the domesticated animals are gone, the humans are gone. In a sense, nature has returned.