'Sweetgrass' — New Documentary Looks At The Life Of Cowboys

Animal husbandry
Image via Wikipedia

Here’s a movie I really want to see, a portrait — which took eight years to complete – of professional cowboys.

Writes Manohla Dargis in today’s New York Times:

Made by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the movie largely involves the enormous effort, along with the unintentional humor and grim realities, involved in driving some 3,000 sensationally noisy sheep (how do they sleep?) up a mountain for summer pasture. Although the filmmakers shot for a number of years (taking eight in total to finish it), most of the material in the final movie was shot in 2001, when a Montanan rancher named Lawrence Allested became the last person to take his sheep into the Absaroka-Beartooth mountains on a federal grazing permit. Primarily in south-central Montana just north of Yellowstone, with a bit spilling into Wyoming, this wilderness area encompasses nearly a million acres and, to judge from the movie, looks like paradise.

It is and it isn’t, depending on the roaring wind, the grazing sheep, the herding dogs and the two singing, cursing hired hands — John Ahern and Pat Connolly — who watch over this often-less-than-peaceable kingdom for a long stretch. Shot in classic observational documentary style, without any on- or off-camera narration to guide you, “Sweetgrass” opens as winter is giving way to spring and the sheep are still at the ranch, being shorn for their wool and giving birth to the year’s lambs. It can be brutal if also caring work. In one scene, a man roughly throws newborn lambs around, trying to gauge which orphan a ewe will accept; in another, a different man puts a fresh lambskin on an orphan, trying to fool the dead lamb’s mother into adopting the new animal.

One of journalism’s greatest joys, for me anyway, is the opportunity to meet people from every walk — or ride — of life. While researching my book about women and guns in 2002, I was welcomed into the home of Doris and Bill McClellan, a house surrounded by thousands of acres of land, a dot on a highway between Silver City and Colorado City, Texas. I was interviewing Doris because, alone that day, every day, miles from help, she’d been attacked by a rabid bobcat that she’d shot  — while it was hanging from her right arm. “I could feel the blood squishing in my shoes,” she told me. “I went back to the house, put on my lipstick and dialed 911.”

Bill, then past 70, was a working cowboy. He got up in the morning, strapped on his worn leather chaps, saddled up and rode away.

I felt like I’d met a unicorn, so mythic and unlikely it was to meet this gentle, modest man living a life centuries-old.

One of my greatest fantasies — sue me for my tenderfoot madness — is to one day develop decent enough riding skills to work, even for a day, doing this sort of work. The 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain” , starring Heath Ledger, remains one of my favorites for its rare portrayal of this rough, difficult job.

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