Before John Ford shot STAGECOACH in Monument Valley, no one – especially in Hollywood – had ever heard of the place. But when the film was released in 1939, everyone claimed they discovered the magnificent red rock landscape first. No matter who the honor rightfully belongs to, the northern Arizona desert valley, dotted with sandstone buttes jutting straight up as high as 1,000 feet, proved to be the perfect backdrop for the western that famously launched the genre from “B movie to the A-list.”
I’ve been thinking about sheep. Ever since I saw the documentary SWEETGRASS over the weekend, I’ve been replaying the images in my mind. Newborn lambs thrown on top of each other, their bodies bouncing like rubber with no obvious damage done. A sheep chews cud and then pauses to give the camera a penetrating stare. A sheep herder’s frustrated and extended cussing diatribe at the herd he’s trying to control as the camera pulls back further and further to show the majestic expanse of wilderness that surrounds him. The sheep, their bodies flowing like water through the streets of a small town. SWEETGRASS (directed by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor) is a documentary about the last sheep drive up the Beartooth Mountains in Montana, a kind of elegy to the west and a meditation on existence dictated by nature and man’s limited control. A film so out of place and yet exactly the kind of unusual film you expect to see as part of the New York Film Festival.