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 Post subject: Cindy Meehl: Buck (2011)
PostPosted: Sun Jul 03, 2011 8:34 am 
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BUCK BRANNAMAN CONDUCTING A CLINIC IN BUCK

Man meets horse (winner of the Sundance Audience Award of 2011)

Buck is a documentary about an unusual man. The stoical cowboy Buck Brannaman can handle and train problem horses like few others. He was not the model for but became the chief advisor and inspiration of Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. However he has a special story of his own. As children he and his older brother (who is seen here only in archival clips) were severely abused by their drunken father, who exploited them very young as rodeo trick rope performers and continually beat them. Now Brannaman, a lucky man in his own eyes with a loyal wife and daughters and a lot of admirers, travels around the American West, much of the time alone, teaching people his art as a trainer -- and pointing out that when there is a problem with a horse, it's usually due to the owner. Buck is a movie that's not only instructive but beautiful inside and outside, though it is more celebratory than investigatory. The deepest secrets, both of the horse whispering and the man's inner life, remain mysterious, but there was enough magic in this film to win the Audience Award at Sundance this year. And fair or foul, horses are among the most beautiful of God's creations, and Buck never loses track of that.

Director Cindy Meehl, a fashion designer turned artist who has now become a filmmaker, follows Buck Brannaman on the four-day horsemanship clinics he gives nine months out of the year and interviews major people in his life and those who encounter him at work. His daughter Reata, who is still in school, is seen touring with him during the summer months. He talks to the camera about the childhood, that picture augmented by old stills and archival footage and the recollection of others -- notably two men who discovered the scars from whippings on the brothers' legs and backs after their kindly mother had died and rushed them to a foster home. Betsy Shirley, his foster mom, herself a tough, salty old dame, is still a major figure in his life. Robert Redford recounts how he thought Brannaman seemed a stage cowboy when he first came into a Hollywood office in Stetson and boots, but then made him chief adviser for his 1998 drama The Horse Whisperer after he discovered the depth of the man's skills. (It's not spelled out how the Redford film's story may relate to Brannaman's.)

To the clinics come people with unruly colts. The old way was to brutalize and beat such horses to "break" them; an old film clip shows such a treatment. Here is the connection between Buck's childhood traumas and his methods as a horse trainer. He understands that the colts have already been brutalized or ignored, and more of that is not the solution. He also makes clear that very often the problem lies with the owners of the colts, whose emotional issues show up in the animals in their care.

Buck seems as adept with roping as he was as a boy (and so is his daughter, Reata) and he can use this skill not just for tricks but to manage cattle and horses. With the horses in the clinics, he also uses long, thin, flexible sticks with little flags attached to them. He waves these to control the colts without frightening them. Exactly how this works never became quite clear to me. One reason is doubtless that Meehl has edited down the training sessions so how long they take isn't clear, or how they begin or end. Brannaman didn't originate his methods but learned them from a master horse trainer, Ray Hunt, whose protege he became and whom he followed around for some time and at first copied slavishly. It also took him some time to overcome his extreme shyness. Now it's clear from the film that he is adept at expressing his methods, philosophy, and personal history at his clinics.

Buck Brannaman is a gentle man, well into middle age, but he still has the lean natural elegance of a cowboy. Old photos and films show as a younger man he was very cool. The lonely life he leads is part of his stoicism. His daughters comment that he's a bit of a dictator on the road. His wife Mary, herself stylish and surrounded by good-looking dogs, seems reasonably happy with the situation, preferring to stay at home most of the time and see her husband only occasionally, though she might prefer otherwise.

Brannaman's methods remind one of Cesar Milan, the "dog whisperer," who has a National Geographic TV series in which he points out to dog owners how their personal failings have created the problems of their pets and then finds specific behavioral solutions. Milan's show gives more information because each episode focuses on a specific animal and its specific owners. The clinic setting in Buck and the film's need to focus on travel, the man, and his personal history as well as the horse "gentling" mean that we're left without depth about the actual training process, despite plenty of footage giving glimpses of it. What does emerge is that Buck's rapport with the animals expresses a gentleness born of his own suffering and that the training is a kind of hypnotic dance.

The film ends with a detailed sequence about a colt at a Chiico, California clinic, a three-year-old oxygen-deprived and brain-damaged at birth that, because its negligent owner didn't give it special care, has become "as close to a predator," Brannaman concludes, as a horse can be. Brannaman works with the colt as with all the others and is able to tame it and saddle it for a while, but after the colt bites a man severely on the head its owner concludes it must be put down. Brannaman gently coaxes the unfortunate animal into the van that will carry it to its death.

"A lot of my work is not helping people with their horse problems but helping horses with their people problems," Buck often says. "Your horse is a mirror to your soul, and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will." These are thoughts worth meditating on. Even if it falls short of greatness as a documentary, Brannaman's clinics are fun to watch and his folksy and very articulate commentary is instructive. This is a warm and involving film that elicits tears, laughter, and applause from an audience. Anyone who cares about animals or the American West will enjoy it.

The handsome cinematography is by DP Luke Geissbuhler with Guy Mossman.

Buck is distributed by IFC Films and entered US theaters June 17, 2011.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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