FILM Fortuitous bookings bring two remarkable American films standing at the crossroads of avant-garde cinema and sensory ethnography to the Bay Area this week: Sweetgrass and Let Each One Go Where He May. Both works adapt effective strategies to work against the slide toward unexamined realism endemic to their troubled genres (the wildlife film and standard anthropological ethnography). First and foremost among them is a coherent program of intense artfulness. One can immediately point to Ernst Karel's sound design (Sweetgrass) and Chris Fawcett's 16mm Steadicam cinematography (Let Each One) as virtuoso performances opening the films to beauty and doubt, an unlikely ethnographic tandem.
Short descriptions are bound to fail these films' experiential stakes, but here are the basic outlines. Recorded between 2001-03 by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, Sweetgrass immerses us in sheep farming before taking off after a pair of latter-day cowboys on a 150-mile drive through Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth range — a journey with deep historical roots and no practical future. Let Each One Go Where He May's title refers to a Surinamese proverb in which the gods emancipate the native population from slavery. Ben Russell's film unfolds as 13, 10-minute takes depicting two brothers (Benjen and Monie Pansa) retracing an ancestral slavery route toward a ritual site. As far as global capital is concerned, the nominal "remoteness" of both films' locations (and the accompanying visual lexicon) is a mirage.
As Sweetgrass' rugged scenery beggars (but ultimately unseats) projections of the pastoral, so too do its mild sheep trigger myriad symbolic associations. But in the intensified apprehension of the animals themselves, which occasionally return the camera's gaze and are heard like Zidane is seen in 2006's Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, these abstractions are restored to the dualistic cradle John Berger pinpoints in his essay, "Why Look At Animals?"
Sweetgrass is finally about the relationship between farmhands and their flocks, and in this, it is notably unsentimental. During long takes of shearing and birthing, the correspondent displays of violence and tenderness, much of it erotic and seemingly reflexive, speaks to the human-animal encounter Berger eulogized in 1977. The lonesome cowboys whisper sweet nothings to the dogs and hurl fantastically mismatched streams of curses at the sheep (the absence of women being the common link). Through it all, Castaing-Taylor's camera is an embodied presence, and hard work at that. Compared with Planet Earth's impossible views and spectacular displacements, Sweetgrass has its feet planted on the ground.
Russell also unwinds the notion of a comfortable vista of things as they were, though his long-take structure pushes the edge of hallucination. Russell's history as a development worker in Suriname helps account for his film's understanding of the way a sense of place is above all enactive, simultaneously engaging seemingly disparate stages of history, economy, and identity. Thus, Let Each One's modernist migration traverses a rural dwelling, country roads, urban bustle, an illegal goldmine, a mythic river, and a baffling reenactment of a clown-masked ritual dance — the ambiguity of whether it's the brothers motivating the camera or vice versa is posed not as a riddle, but as a dance.