Punching in with a few SFIFF films set in the workplace
The Last Buffalo Hunt might seem a leap from here, but listen to Terry Albrecht explaining how burned out he feels from decades of guiding tourist-hunters for a shot at the once-plentiful beasts: "You know how it is ... another day at the office." A documentary pitched uneasily between third-person essay and first-person observation, The Last Buffalo Hunt is the result of more than five years of tracking Albrecht and his patrons in Utah's choked Henry Mountains. Lee Anne Schmitt and coproducer Lee Lynch do not make this material easy to absorb either at the level of sensory impressions or intellectual understanding. It's a familiar story by now — that as the West was won, it was made consumable as iconography and fantasy — but rarely has the laboriousness of this task been brought into such close focus as it is here.
In her previous film, California Company Town (2008), Schmitt created a ruminative space by supplementing her landscape surveys with essayistic illuminations of what had been wrought in this or that place. The soundtrack in The Last Buffalo Hunt works similarly, situating the annual hunts in shards of history and variations on the Western theme (ranging from popular song to Frederick Jackson Turner's discourses). But Schmitt's foray into this landscape is more precarious for the simple reason that she and Lynch are dependent on Terry and his men. He's a different kind of guide to them than he is to the hunters, to be sure, but similarly indispensable.
When I saw the film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, one viewer commented on the Western memorabilia glimpsed in Terry's home — that it seemed typical of how American individualism devolves into a refusal to see beyond one's myths. I suppose he's right, but there's something sad about how little the myth has done for Terry. At the end of his career, his livelihood is far from triumphal. Early in The Last Buffalo Hunt we see a century-old photograph of a man standing in front of a mountain of skins, and the present-tense hunts seem entirely predicated on such photo-ops. The narration suggests a common link in entitlement, though this hardly feels like a solution. If the protracted death of a single bison is finally as irreducible as Terry's hard day at the office, they both end up in the animatronic display of history, the Indians long forgotten.
THE 54TH ANNUAL SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs April 21–-May 5. Venues are the Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Castro, 429 Castro, SF; New People, 1746 Post, SF; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third, SF; and Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. For tickets (most shows $13) and complete schedule visit www.sffs.org.