In the summer of 2003, two cowboys on horseback lead 3,000 sheep high into Montana's Beartooth Mountains for summer pasture, while the cameras of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash tag along. In this elegiac documentary, there is no narration and the only soundtrack is the incessant bleating of sheep.
Sweetgrass is one of those quiet, plotless films you simply have to slide into. Once the sheep are sheared on the farm, paraded down Main Street and led into the alpine wilderness, you may be surprised by how engaged you are. While not much happens, there is still plenty to note, not least of all the stunning scenery. The men employ a few modern items, such as walkie-talkies, but much about their summer work remains unchanged, from the canvas teepees the men set up to the ancient cookstove. It could be 1935 or 1895. (One cowboy lets loose a stream of invective against some wandering sheep worthy of any of Deadwood's profane rants.)
Thus does Sweetgrass serve as ethnography, one last look at how it was, and how it likely won't be again. This pastoral relationship between man and animal -- and the land that just barely sustains them both -- is faintly romanticized, but the hard work and tedium show, too. Ultimately, what you realize is that what is no longer sustainable isn't the abundant public grazeland or the perky sheep, but the time and commitment required from us. Starts Fri., July 23, through Sun., July 25. Harris