Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 18, 2022 1:06 pm 
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Two modern cowgirls and their chatter

This documentary follows Collie Moline to Hollyn Patterson, two modern cowgirls from Montana with a couple of horses and a good dozen herding dogs on a four-month stint hired to herd cattle in Idaho. Hollyn's fiancé Elijah hovers around a few times but the two women appear to be living by themselves in a rugged cabin we see them both explore at the outset (no electric; working stove; toilet needs repair). There's nobody much else around, just a lot of exceptionally beautiful scenery seen as no tourist sees it and a lot of black cattle.

So this is a rare and valuable film - and yet I did not altogether enjoy it. Why? I think there's more than necessary of the women's chatter, which runs randomly from the trivial to the practical to the solemn, and there should clearly, as emerges in he first few minutes, have been none at all of the intrusive, annoying duo piano renditions of Bach played so loud they drown out that chatter. Why the steadying effect of Bach was felt to be needed baffles me, and is a bad sign. Natural sublimity doesn't need the underlining of the human kind. Do they not understand how much lovers of Bach prefer him not to forcibly repurposed as a composer of background music?

A German reviewer, Irgendwo im Nirgendwo, agrees with this, writing that "the images are so strong" "any words spoken from the outside" can only have "a disturbing effect," referring to the cowgirls. "This is also the case," he adds, "with the piano music, which is appropriately played at the end, but is distracting in the first half of the film." "The sounds that nature offers," he says, "are far too beautiful," and "even the sounds that the equipment of the two young women produce fit the film perfectly."

I'm also not sure about the editing when I see the long ten-minutes of Hollyn breaking her new colt and notice it's had some seconds cut out of it. It could have been edited down to a third the length and still conveyed the event, or, if you want to convey the patience and laboriousness of this process, it ought to have been made to look uncut.

"I'm just tryin' to keep up with the Kardashians, Hollyn; you know, style's everything," says Collie. It's a joke; they're really talking about her jeans getting ripped up less on shorter mounts. If you don't like that, you may like to hear Collie talk about being present for the death of her mother from an aneurysm and how one good thing about the three unnecessary days she was kept alive was she got to memorize her mother's hands.

As Sheri Linden mentions at the outset of her Hollywood Reporter review, this falls into a subgenre of films about herding, and she names the Swiss Hiver Nomade and Sweetgrass, Bittergrass perhaps even being "a gentle retort" to the latter. Sweetgrsss toward the end includes an odd stretch of dialogue recorded from afar, but it's basically wordless, which probably Coline and Hollyn's work days largely are. It would have been nice to show that - and at the same time convey better the outlines of the work (which might have required another, higher level, angle, provided by drone, perhaps).

How did this partnership develop? They're both from cowboy families apparently; Colie doesn't want to have to compete with hers. But the hows and whys of their relationship are largely left unexplained. One guesses two work better than one and less lonelier.

A Spanish website, En primera fila, points out that notable "Westerns" of one sort or another have come from women lately: Chloé Zhao's The Rider, then Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, lately Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog. But this one, unlike those, is pure documentary, and that's why we wish it had interfered less with its material.

At the end they must ride a snowstorm without heavy coats and get all the cattle down from the mountain, counting them. They love the place and don't want to leave. And then, a luxury we don't have, they burn all their trash - including cans.

Emelie Mahdavian was writer-editor of Hassan Fazili's 2019 Midnight Traveler.

Bitterbrush, 90 mins., debuted Telluride Apr. 22, 2021; at Visions du Réel, Nyon, Switzerland April 2021 it won the Special Jury Award; various other festivals and awards. US theatrical release by Magnolia from June 17, 2022 (including at Opera Plaza, San Francisco).

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