Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash’s stunning documentary, Sweetgrass, opens this Friday in Berkeley and San Francisco, with Barbash making several appearances over the weekend (schedule information here). I wrote about the film, along with Ben Russell’s 13-shot trance epic, Let Each One Go Where He May, in this week’s paper. Castaing-Taylor mentioned John Berger essay “Why Look At Animals?” as an influence after a screening I attended this past summer, and it works nicely as a politics of the film’s phenomenological plenitude. I especially wanted to excerpt this passage in my piece, but couldn’t because of space constraints:
“An animal’s blood flowed like human blood, but its species was undying and each lion was Lion, each ox was Ox. This—maybe the first existential dualism—was reflected in the treatment of animals. They were subjected and worshipped, bred and sacrificed. Today the vestiges of this dualism remain among those who live intimately with, and depend upon, animals. A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements in that sentence are connected by an and and not by a but.”
Berger’s essay, like Sweetgrass, considers the disappearance of this ancient human-animal bond; the “vestiges” are vividly realized in the long takes of shearing and birthing, situated early in the film so that romantic associations of the landscape do not set before we deal with the particularities of gesture and labor . As Castaing-Taylor put it in a Cinema Scope interview, “We definitely intended there to be a tension between intimacy and violence, eroticism and misogyny, tenderness and aggression—all of these things being part and parcel of the fabric of our lives, of human existence, and definitely our relationship to other animals.”
“The zoo cannot but disappoint,” Berger notes, the end in sight. “The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal…That look between animal and man, which may have played a crucial role in the development of human society, and with which, in any case, all men had always lived until less than a century ago, has been extinguished.”
Encounter is the keyword for Castaing-Taylor and Barbash’s approach, which does much to redeem observational cinema from its unhealthy dependence on crisis situations and tried-and-true typologies on the one hand and vacuous head-nodding on the other (David MacDougall’s essay “Beyond Observational Cinema,” collected in the Castaing-Taylor edited Transcultural Cinema, offers thoughtful elaboration). Castaing-Taylor complains, in the same Cinema Scope interview, that “Especially in mainstream documentaries, there are always people telling you about their lives in some sort of post hoc extrapolation, but not actually living them.” The film’s use of sound is perhaps the most significant departure from this illustrative norm. The ranging manipulation of the field-recording tracks—always in sync but in multiple focus and placed in a voluble, shifting relationship to the scale of the visual frame—privileges the how to the what. This goes for speech as well. Watching the film, I’m reminded that much of the excitement about sync sound and Direct Cinema, in the first place, had to do with opening film to a previously unheard kind of speech: as it is spoken, in real time, on the spot, accented, in process, lacuna and all, what have you. Thanks to those expertly deployed lavalier mics, much of the speech in Sweetgrass is not enunciated: it is muttered, cried out, half-sung. This opens the film to a whole range of verbal expression elided by direct address and is very much wound up in the way Castaing-Taylor and Barbash draw a connection between the cowboys and the animals (whose noises would require a whole separate essay).
What I like most about Sweetgrass, and why I think I’ll keep coming back to it for some time, is that it’s a quixotic film. What does it mean to sensually engage an experience of the world which, pace Berger, is extinguished? As camera operator, Castaing-Taylor is so much more immersed than the typical observational documentarian, letting a whole habitat of experience sing its own song—and yet, at the same time, it’s more transparently his experience of the world that we’re engaging. He’s even mentioned by name a few times (including a hilarious moment at the close of a long take when laconic John says to Pat, “Lucien’s asleep.”).
Ben Russell is similarly personified in Let Each One Go Where He May (I’m almost positive he even flits in front of the camera during the great shot amidst urban congestion), which screens at Yerba Buena Friday evening. And in a late-breaking development, Oddball Films is screening Russell’s entire Trypps series the following night at 10pm (program announcement is here). The third installment of this series, after a Lightning Bolt concert, was one of the very best things I saw on the big screen last year. I’m sad that I’m not going to be able to make it, but you should go. SFIAAFF also gets cranking this week. Guardian pals Matt Sussman and Johnny Ray Huston preview two of the films I’m most looking forward to, Scrap Vessel and Indepencia. I’ll file my own brief at the next clearing.