Sunday, March 7, 2010

Frankly, My Dear, I Prefer Sheep

There is a certain kind of film that falls midway between documentary and narrative cinema. It involves an approach to filmmaking often taken by people with a heavy academic bent or those who like to employ a "fly on the wall" approach to cinema.
  • Sometimes there isn't much spoken dialogue.
  • Sometimes the words or thoughts spoken by the people on screen are unintelligible.
  • Sometimes what's being said does absolutely nothing to advance the story.
  • Sometimes the sound of a human voice has no relevance at all to what the audience is watching.
In order to succeed with this particular genre, a filmmaker must be able to deliver stunning visuals, present a subject so compelling that it needs no words to explain it, or have such a unique perspective on life that the audience will easily buy into his vision. Otherwise, his work runs the risk of appearing technically proficient but intellectually lazy. His attention to detail may fulfill a quixotic artistic vision, yet leave his audience cold.

Here's how Laura Zaylea and David Yun describe their debut feature film (which will be shown at the upcoming San Francisco Asian-American International Film Festival):
"[It] moves beyond traditional identity politics and instead depicts queer lives that are nuanced, complex, and full of the same emotions and desires that drive us all. In exploring these themes, Hold The Sun puts forth a visual lexicon where intonation, body language, and gesture are just as important as words. One that acknowledges how technology has transformed the way we communicate and where traditional ideas about what 'queer' looks like is challenged.

This is a film about our ability and inability to connect. It is about loneliness, magic, and politics all existing simultaneously within the fabric of our everyday lives. Gwennie is a 20-something taxidermist who spends just as much time in her head as she does in reality. Bonnie is a painter having trouble coming up with ideas of her own. Ellen is a travel writer who spends most of her time in the confines of her apartment. Through these characters, and the many people they encounter, the film portrays a community of queer women overcoming the self-doubt and fear that haunts them."
Who knew lesbians could be so boring?

Mindless paramecia viewed through a microscope spark more curiosity in their audience than the dreary set of women showcased with paralyzing insipidity in Hold The Sun. These lesbianic pod people make the Stepford Wives seem as tempestuous as Hurricane Katrina. Among the women we meet in Hold The Sun are:
  • A depressed lesbian who slices vegetables with a crushing tedium that dwarfs her total lack of personality.
  • An author (Lynn Shukla) who addresses an audience of lesbians assembled in a public library about her book on the symbolism of horns in goddess mythology.
  • An athletic young woman (Aviance Rhome) who likes to dress up as a red fox and stand atop a box like a frozen mime as people pass her by.
  • A travel writer who stands alone in her apartment, reading aloud the copy she has written for brochures and websites hawking cruises to Hawaii and Alaska. We later see Ellen (Maya Mahrer) alone in bed with two cell phones as she dials one from the other and leaves a voice mail for herself that says "I love you."
  • A lonely taxidermist (Jen Sethasang) who meticulously cleans the wings of a dead bat.
  • An artist (Ching-Yi Tseng) whose biggest inspiration may be walking in and out of the room.
  • An open mic performer (Sharay Davis) who lifelessly reads an execrable piece of poetry to a group of people who resemble the lesbian population of The Village of the Damned.
Although the filmmakers exhibit a preference for static shots that capture nuanced shadings of light, Hold The Sun is more like the Sapphic version of watching paint dry. Essentially, this is a boring film about boring women made by filmmakers who, in real life, might be very boring people as well.

Hold The Sun features long moments in which the audience watches someone's computer monitor as a woman tries to determine which Hyperlinks she should click. In another sequence, the camera slowly pans in past a window frame until the television resting on a distant table fills the screen.

It's rare to encounter a film shot in San Francisco that can make the city and its citizens seem hopelessly dour and uninteresting. How deadly is Hold The Sun? This is the kind of cinema that makes a week-long bout of constipation seem like a major action sequence from How The West Was Won.

What this horrifyingly vapid, staggeringly dull, and monumentally insignificant film does accomplish in spades, however, is to showcase the glaringly limited talents of its filmmakers and nonactors with a surreal attention to nonessential detail. If I had one piece of advice to give a young lesbian moving to San Francisco it would be that she make it her lifelong mission to avoid becoming as dull, depressed, and humorless as the women in Hold The Sun. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
Moving right along from the "ewwww" factor to the "ewe" factor, we come to Sweetgrass, a magnificent film whose cinematography alone is worth the price of admission. Back in 2005, when Brokeback Mountain was all anyone could talk about, I found myself less entranced with Heath Ledger's portrayal of the closeted, butch Ennis del Mar and more attracted to Jake Gyllenhal's portrayal of rodeo cowboy, Jack Twist.

If the truth be told, I was more interested in the sheep. Apparently, I was not alone.
A documentary of unspeakable beauty, Sweetgrass follows the last group of modern‐day cowboys as they lead their flocks of sheep up to their summer pastureland in the AbsarokaBeartooth mountains of Montana. Featuring John Ahern, Elaine Allestad, Lawrence Allestad, and Pat Connolly, this is the kind of nature film that, after 100 minutes of listening to sheep bleating, dogs barking, cowboys cursing and wolves howling, leaves its audience begging for more.

In his recordist’s statement, filmmaker Lucien Castaing‐Taylor writes:
"We began work on this film in the spring of 2001. Living at the time in Colorado, we heard about a family of Norwegian‐American sheepherders in Montana, who were among the last to trail their band of sheep long distances -- about 150 miles each year, all of it on hoof -- up to the mountains for summer pasture. I visited them that April during lambing, and was so taken with the magnitude of their life -- at once its allure and its arduousness -- that we ended up working with them, their friends, and their Irish‐American hired hands intensively over the coming years.

Sweetgrass is one of nine films to have emerged from the footage we have shot over the last decade, the only one intended principally for theatrical exhibition. As they have been shaped through editing, the films seem to have become as much about the sheep as about their herders. The humans and animals that populate them commingle and crisscross in ways that have taken us by surprise. Sweetgrass depicts the twilight of a defining chapter in the history of the American West, the dying world of Western herders -- descendants of Scandinavian and northern European homesteaders -- as they struggle to make a living in an era increasingly inimical to their interests.

Set in Big Sky country, in a landscape of remarkable scale and beauty, the film portrays a lifeworld colored by an intense propinquity between nature and culture -- one that has been integral to the fabric of human existence throughout history, but which is almost unimaginable for the urban masses of today. Spending the summers high in the Rocky Mountains, among the herders, the sheep, and their predators, was a transcendent experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days."
Producer Ilisa Barbash has an equally intense recollection of how the film was made:
“'I am the last guy to do this and someone ought to make a film about it.' So spoke old-time rancher Lawrence Allested in 2001, about the fact that he was the last person to drive his sheep up into Montana’s AbsarokaBeartooth mountain range on a grazing permit that had been handed down in his Norwegian‐American family for generations. Filmmakers and anthropologists living at the time in Boulder, Colorado, we had wanted to make a film about the American West, and were instantly intrigued by the topic.

We drove up to Big Timber that summer, ready to make a film called “The Last Sheep Drive.” Our cars were loaded to the brim with three camera rigs, a bunch of radio microphones, our two kids, a dog, and a babysitter. For the first few weeks we’d wake up at 4 a.m. to help drive the sheep through town and then up the roads towards the hills. It was a family adventure for us, and a family enterprise for the ranchers -- with kids, grandparents, neighbors, and passers‐by all helping.

It soon became clear, however, that because of the growing grizzly bear and grey wolf population, taking the kids up into the mountains would be impossible. So Lucien went up without us, hiking and riding, while I filmed other events in town -- rodeos, dog trials, shooting contests, haying, the Sweetgrass County Fair.

When Lucien got down from the mountains that fall, he was unrecognizable -- bearded beyond belief, 20 pounds lighter, carrying a ton of footage, and limping. He would later be diagnosed with trauma‐induced advanced degenerative arthritis, caused by carrying the equipment day and night, and need double foot surgery.

When we started to watch the footage, we realized that we had two or more different films (and so many different points of view that I thought about calling the film “A Piece of the Big Sky.”) We decided the most compelling story for a theatrical film was the original one we’d been interested in: the sheep drive itself -- as ritual, as history, as challenge. Even then, we had a good 200 hours of footage to wade through. Little did we know that this would take us about eight years.

In the meantime, we went back up to film lambing, shearing, the following year’s sheep drive, and the one after that. We even moved to the East Coast. (We started joking that we’d call the film, “The Penultimate Sheep Drive.”) Most of the footage, however is from that first summer. In 2006, the ranch was sold, along with most of the sheep. Now the film is finally finished.

As for a title, we’d started using “Big Timber,” as it was the name of the town where the drive began, but as fitting as that was for the title of a Western, it implied a film about logging. We finally settled on Sweetgrass. While the journey is tremendously hard, it is undertaken not just for the literal goal of reaching (sweet) grass, but also to carry on tradition against all sorts of odds.

There is a silent 1925 documentary called Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison, about an heroic seasonal trek (transhumance) of herds and Bakhtiari herdsmen in Persia. Sweetgrass tips its hat to that film, and is a tribute to past and contemporary people who still manage to eke out a bittersweet living on the land."
Whether his shots of sheep are by the dozen or clustered by the hundreds, Sweetgrass has a panoramic sweep whose natural beauty makes the best CGI scripting seem almost inconsequential. From the earliest parts of the film, when each sheep gets a buzzcut, to its final moments, Sweetgrass is a sheer (as well as shear) delight. Here's the trailer:

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