Monday, January 17, 2011

Getting the gist

Most films you watch, you should pay attention at least 85% of the time if you really want to say you saw it.

With the documentary Sweetgrass, all you really need is to get the gist. Somewhere between 50 and 60% is good enough.

Sweetgrass, which I saw Saturday morning, is a film about sheep. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sheep. Maybe over a thousand. Heck, maybe over two thousand.

Sheep eating grass. Sheep getting sheared. Sheep baa-ing. Sheep sleeping. Sheep being cooperative and sheep being pains in the ass. Sheep following each other ... like sheep. An hour and forty-five minutes of sheep.

And that's it.

Oh, it can be kind of mesmerizing to watch the sheep flow like water, like a river, in their line of bobbing heads and fuzzy coats. And there's plenty of beautiful cinematography of Montana's Beartooth Mountains to keep you in that dreamy fugue.

But there isn't even any human dialogue until the movie is about 20 minutes old. Actually, that's the best part of the movie. Once the dialogue does start coming in, none of it is directed at the camera and very little of it is anything but what you would call B-roll -- almost incidental to the capturing of the images. Without narration, without any introduction to the humans who are herding these sheep, and without any sense of narrative momentum other than the fact that the whole group is going on a journey that will at some point end, you really only need to get the gist of Sweetgrass.

Which means that while watching the movie, not only did I update my status and play a couple turns of Lexulous, and not only did I keep the baby entertained, but I also wrote yesterday morning's blog post.

There's a bit of a relief to only half-watching a movie and legitimately saying you saw it. We all live busy lives these days, lives where multi-tasking isn't only a handy skill, it's essential. Even if those secondary tasks are as inconsequential as playing your next turn in a game or pontificating about film for the world to see (as I'm doing now). Even if those secondary tasks become primary tasks because the primary task is so mind-numbing.

The one exception in Sweetgrass comes at about the hour-and-fifteen mark, when one of the herders starts swearing up a storm when he gets pissed off at, I believe, his dog, who has lost himself up in some rocks and needs to be fetched. At this point the guy hauls out every profanity in his arsenal, which'll certainly make you snap to attention from whatever you were doing. Perhaps that's why directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor chose to include that outburst at precisely that moment -- they realized their viewers would need to snap out of whatever stupor the movie had left them in. Shortly thereafter is the movie's most expository passage, when the same herder calls someone on his cell and complains, in a voice breaking with emotion, about the difficulty of the journey, with its many setbacks and obstacles. After that, you're invited back to sleep for the last 20 minutes or so.

The thing is, I sort of liked Sweetgrass. I initially had it ranked in a decent spot on my list, before reading a review that convinced me I should drop it ten or 20 spots. It turns out, being mesmerized by sheep is not the most unpleasant experience a person could have. And just because the filmmakers don't follow the traditional documentary path of regularly interviewing their human subjects and allowing those interviews to construct a narrative, doesn't mean the doco doesn't have value. It's useful just as a pretty, hypnotic background.

Plus, you can use the time to pay some bills, chat with a friend on Facebook or book a trip online.


Don Handsome said...

"sort of liked"?

Maybe you should have paid more attention.

This is an astounding and beautiful film that requires 100% of your attention. I should know, I watched it once half paying attention, like you and I sort of liked it...but then I had questions and decided that I had missed something. I went back, watching it with all of my attention, and it paid off. Honestly, I think you've missed out...the gist does not cut it.

Vancetastic said...

Sorry, I didn't realize I wasn't allowed to have a differing opinion. ;-)

Don Handsome said...

of course you're allowed.

I'm just saying that my opinion was the same as yours, until I really watched and engaged the film. That's all.

Vancetastic said...

You were brave to wade in a second time -- not that it's hard to watch, just that it's very slow. You're probably right that I could have gotten more out of it if I'd forced myself to watch the screen the whole time, but I have to pick and choose my battles. Hence, I doubt I will ever look at it again -- and certainly not in time for our ranking deadline.

Don Handsome said...

Yeah its a long hour and forty-five...but worth it, I'd say.