Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 17, 2015

Great first shot! After a nearly agonizing long time, that sheep looks right at us.

There might be a bit too much of Ricky Leacock’s snide characterization of observational documentary in this movie. It was monkeys typing, wasn’t it? Observer doc-makers think that if you shoot and shoot and shoot something eventually is bound to happen. And it either doesn’t, or your endless hovering manufactures the happening and compromises the record.

Both things might be true here. Audience members were in clear agonies about this insistent and extended exposition, and maybe the filmmakers could have cut a bit. But to the film’s credit, it did exactly give us the pace and sense of a real rancher’s life, the patterns and travails and occasional satisfactions—knowing hands, understatedly affectionate relations—that rarely get aired. Colin Low’s Corral does the same thing, rejecting the whole history of Western melodrama and character confrontation. But Low’s short film gives us the sense, or a taste, while this one gives us the thing itself. It makes for a rigourous viewing experience, but it’s true, isn’t it? There’s life for you, and maybe if we don’t like that we should just have to lump that.

And isn’t it vivid? There’s an absurd dialogue between the old guy and the young guy as they sit looking out of that open tent that couldn’t have been bettered by Nobel Prize winners. The beauty and, then, simultaneous cruelty of the land that they’re crossing is powerfully present, and should more than compensate for any lack of conventional incident. Plain traveling to stunning locales is more than enough for the person driving in his car. Why should it be any different with movies? Also, intended or not, there’s something powerful about the shepherd and fold echoes. What’s really instructive is how Jesus is gentle and kind, and these guys get all resentful, even despairing, then get it done anyway. Good Christians!

A final word on that infamous blue streak on the mountain top. We always hear from the pulpit that swearing is for people that don’t have the imagination or vocabulary or brains to say what they really want to. This is good propaganda, of course—deride the undesired behaviour while inviting your charge to come to the smart and substantial and righteous side. But actually, lots of smart people swear, and to considerable purpose, and with considerable insight and even gain: JD Salinger, Robert Towne, Richard Pryor, Billy Connolly, David Mamet, James Kelman, Roddy Doyle, on and on. We may not like it, we may not approve, but we can’t honestly just dismiss it either. (No women?  We haven’t even touched upon hip-hop music.)

In addition, profanity can be and has been the last or best or maybe only weapon against tie-tightening, suit wearing, poor-evicting pillars of the community. You know, the people whose outward deportment is perfect, and who’s very lives and deepest assumptions (economic Darwinism, or attorney savagery) are those of the ravening wolf. Those guys should be sworn at. Or finally, there’s anger, or sorrow, or choosing just the thing to say in the face of some obscenity. Think René Levesque responding to Pierre Laporte’s murder (Action: The October Crisis of 1970, Canada, 1974).

Oh, and there’s a last last thing. As Sweetgrass kind of suggests, and as the preachers always tell us, sometimes the profane just aren’t very smart, or very educated, or very broadly experienced. They may not be very principled. But the fact that we don’t want our kids to turn out this way doesn’t really address a big moral remainder. After hearing this cowboy’s sort of shocking, then sort of reasonable, kind of hilarious, eventually tiresome and finally poignant swearamiad you might be left with a realization. Who cares if he swears?! He can’t be dismissed! People like this are still worthy and deserving of our sympathetic attention, maybe even our ministrations. They may respond thereto, or they may stubbornly hold their course. We are still responsible. It is not funny that immediately afterwards this young man got on the phone and cried to his mother. There’s the culmination of that shepherd motif—things are tough, and people are silly, and they deserve to be gathered and loved.