Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Sweetgrass and San Francisco

A screen cap  from the documentary Sweetgrass.

On the one hand, it's due to cool down a little today --- into the mid-80s --- after two days of steam heat. On the other hand, it's supposed to rain. That's the story of our lives this summer.

The combination makes it easier, however, to justify staying inside in the evening  to see what television (or in my case, the Internet a day or two later) has to offer.

Here's a YouTube version of a "60 Minutes" segment broadcast Sunday night (first broadcast during April) that was mentioned first by a friend, then popped up on a news site I look at regularly.

The subject is a trip down San Francisco's Market Street shot sometime during the week before the great earthquake there on April 18, 1906. The film-maker and his hand-cranked camera were riding on the front of a cable car when it was made.

Digitally restored, the images are amazing --- worth watching once, then again, maybe even more times.

There also was a little detective work involved in the story. How the film came to be had been a mystery until a researcher using the Internet and microfilm tracked its story down, dating it precisely, identifying its maker and even finding out how it managed to survive --- shipped out of San Francisco to New York before the quake struck.

There's poignancy here, too, since at least some of those recorded on film probably were among the more than 3,000 who died in the quake and the massive fires that followed and few of the buildings shown survived.


The other interesting program is longer --- the television premier of "Sweetgrass," an acclaimed documentary by the team of Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, much of it shot during 2001. The premier was via PBS's Point of View (POV).

The focus of the story is a vanishing way of life, the last drive of roughly 3,000 sheep to summer pasture on public ground in the Absaroka-Beartooth range in south central Montana, just north of Yellowstone.

The film, which took eight years to complete, begins on winter range near Big Timber and follows in great detail the shearing, lambing, summer range cycle that once was common in both the West and on a far smaller scale in the Midwest (alothough the cycle I remember, in Iowa, where winter is kinder, began with an earlier lambing season, which shearing followed).

Nearly everything about the film is stunning --- including the cussing (quite a bit of it irritatingly beeped out to meet "family" TV standards). There is no narration --- none at all --- so the story is told in classic observational documentary style entirely through image, sound and the terse voices of the ranching family, the Lawrence Allesteds, and their hands. It is stunning.

There's poignancy here, too, because the Allesteds lost their grazing permits and the ranch was sold during 2006 --- due in large part to decline of the sheep industry. That's something else I hadn't thought much about, but there's just not much of a market either for lamb or wool any more.

Anyhow, this is a chance to see, for free, a version of a great documentary that retains its integrity despite being edited down a little because of time constraints and having some of its language cleaned up. If you want to see, it go to the PBS "watch video" page here and scroll through the offerings to POV.


Another place I visit regularly in this virtual world of ours is the University of Iowa Press site, which is here, and that got a little expensive yesterday (sales, you know). By chance, the two books I was interested in happened to be on sale --- so I ordered them. Check out the sale items yourself, or just browse.

I'm still not used to shopping for books online --- one part of my former commuting life involved weekly passes by or through both Ames and Des Moines --- and their bookstores. But when you compare the cost of gasoline against the cost of shipping, online shopping gains in advantage.

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