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Directed by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
USA 2008

 

An unsentimental elegy to the American West, Sweetgrass follows the last modern-day cowboys to lead their flocks of sheep up into Montana's breathtaking and often dangerous Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. This astonishingly beautiful film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, and vulnerability and violence are all intimately meshed.

***

"Sweetgrass" is an unexpectedly intoxicating documentary, unexpected because it blends high artistic standards with the grueling reality of one of the toughest, most exhausting of work environments.

For though the area of southern Montana where "Sweetgrass" is shot is a visually stunning locale, running a sheep ranch in general and caring for enormous flocks during their months of summer pasture in particular turns out to be a grueling, intensely physical existence grounded in the unforgiving rhythms of the natural world.

Made by filmmakers and anthropologists Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, "Sweetgrass" consciously echoes the celebrated 1925 silent documentary "Grass," a record made by the future "King Kong" duo of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack of a staggering annual migration by Bakhtiari sheep herdsmen in what was then Persia.

Though it's not a silent film -- thousands of baa-ing sheep wouldn't allow for that -- "Sweetgrass" does without interviews and without voice-overs. The only human voices heard are those captured in random snatches of conversation, like one of the ranch hands joking about why a cowboy's brain would be worth millions on the open market: "It's never been used."

Excerpt from Kenneth Turan at the L.A. Times located HERE

Poster

Theatrical Release: February 4th, 2009 - Berlin International Film Festival

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DVD Review: Cinema Guild - Region 1 - NTSC

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Distribution Cinema Guild - Region 1 - NTSC
Runtime 1:42:40 
Video 1.78:1 Aspect Ratio
Average Bitrate: 5.56 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s   

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.

Bitrate:

Audio English (Dolby Digital 2.0), English (Dolby Digital 5.1) 
Subtitles  None
Features

Release Information:
Studio: Cinema Guild

Aspect Ratio:
Original Aspect Ratio 1.78:1

Edition Details:

• Audio commentary by filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor
• 10 Additional scenes
• Fan photo gallery
- Theatrical trailer
• Booklet featuring essay by film critic Robert Koehler

DVD Release Date: August 3rd, 2010

Keep Case
Chapters: 22

 

Comments:

I really enjoyed Sweetgrass - especially with the included commentary that clarified multiple points on what was actually transpiring onscreen - it was like a second, educational, film. The bulk of the documentary is essential devoid of dialogue but this promotes the bonding with nature for the viewer that is ongoing throughout the arduous trek. One must think of the two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain who, essentially, had the exact same job portrayed in Sweetgrass - taking a heard of sheep to pasture in the mountains over the arid summer. Simply put one 'herder' is the cook and the other protects the flock. It is quite a beautiful and unsentimental exploration of this highly unusual occupation.

 

The Cinema Guild DVD is dual-layered and progressive - and it looks glossy in spots as I believe some of it was shot with digital. The Montana mountain ranges and open sky vistas are breathtaking and look good but never stupendous on the SD-DVD transfer. This would, no doubt, have been more impacting on Blu-ray with the cinematography elevating to a more immersive presentation. On a standard system this will look occasional impressive but won't blow your socks off visually. Colors, contrast and there is some depth too - are all very sound. For this medium it looks as good as it can.

Audio gives two options - stereo and 5.1 surround. The latter actually does produce some surprising range with animal noises (sheep bleating and predators scurrying away from rifle fire). There are no subtitles but while they aren't necessary (due to the lack of dialogue) there were spots where we can only hear faint conversation - this was probably an intentional verite effect but had me curious as to what I might be missing.

Extras include the aforementioned commentary by filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (husband and wife is how they introduce themselves - *I think*). He sees the film in a very poetic sense and this was very refreshing as he also was the expert on the technical proceedings of what was happening in Sweetgrass - regarding most of the why's and wherefores of the rancher-hand existence. I was very keen on the extensive amount that animals were part of this documentary - beyond the sheep, there were pack-mules to carry supplies, horses for transportation, varying dog types for herding and protection - then potential predators - bears, Timber wolves, coyotes or ferocious wolverines. This was quite fascinating. There are also ten additional scenes from topics of 'docking lambs' to 'weighing in and trucking out'. Some of these are quite long (over 15-minutes) but don't carry the same relevance as the overall impact of the entire film experience. There is also a fan photo gallery, theatrical trailer and an 8-page liner notes booklet featuring essay by film critic Robert Koehler.

Great stuff - I've been VERY fortunate lately with two excellent documentaries in the past few days - The Art of the Steal and Sweetgrass. Both are highly recommended - although this one may be less accessible to viewers who are anticipating something more explanatory - this is where the included commentary will support excellent value. I absolutely recommend.

Gary W. Tooze

 



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Distribution Cinema Guild - Region 1 - NTSC



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