Wednesday, December 23, 2015


"Good judgement comes from experience.  Experience comes from bad judgment.  And sometimes that bad judgement can be pretty horrific!"  -Val Geissler, cowboy poet, horse trainer, “Unbranded” mentor and support crew.

BEN MASTERS  "Mastermind"  Wildlife Biology 

THOMAS GLOVER  Construction Science

BEN THAMER  Agricultural Economics

JONNY FITZSIMONS  History Degree from the School of Liberal Arts
Doncella in the background

This film is like “Sweetgrass,” the film record of moving sheep from one seasonal range to another.  This time it is four young men, handsome and sophisticated but seemingly artless, riding from Mexico to Canada.  In the film, when they get to Montana and enter firestorm country (Bob Marshall Wilderness, East Slope leading into Glacier Park), they are near where I live.  I don’t know what Sid Gustafson, the racehorse veterinarian, will say about this film, but the home office of his practice is in Bozeman where the basic managing office of the film -- the franchise called Fin, Feather and Fur, which is a chain of stores, bed-and-breakfasts, and outdoor guides -- is also located.  Bozeman is a cowboy town.  (Well, also a ski, mountain climbing, engineering, and big breakfast town.)

These young men are in prime condition, strong, smart, educated, backed by good families and a network of friends and experts.  The trip itself is key, because every risky trip is a story and adventure in itself, but it is also a model of a business plan.  A second key is that it is connected to an environmental emotional issue, that of wild horses in a double bind that doesn’t seem to be resolvable.  It is incredibly well-planned in the face of what are bound to be moments of life-threatening force, like a horse falling helplessly or another one found dead without any obvious cause.  There were trails and suspension bridges and tunnels -- terrifying.  The suspense is like a mountain climb and the scenery is just as spectacular, but we are skillfully brought back to the issue of wild horses and that little heart-breaker problem is what got the money raised.

If Lewis and Clark had had logistical support like this, their expedition would have been a snap.  Consider the GPS and iPhone locators, let alone the SAT phone that pulled in veterinarians and Val, the wise mentor, and could have helicoptered them out in a life-threatening emergency.  The four cowboys didn’t cheat -- the hardships and dangers were real -- but there were also four cameramen that we don’t see, plus all the folks who left supply dumps along the way.

How much of the plot-line that developed as interactions among the four was a natural outcome and how much of it was deliberately exaggerated and developed can only be known by the four and their photographers.  Two little threads went along, entwining.  One was the bonding of these men with their horses and little old Donkella, the donkey who took care of herself, thank you.  When a horse was hurt or lost, the men were efficient but also emotional.  If one of the men screwed up in a way that hurt a horse, the others were relentless.  The other “story” was between the two most aggressive and bull-headed men, one the formal organizer and the other just as strong but in a slightly different way, a little more complex and even mystical.  Decisions about how to cope sort of evolved out of circumstances but tensions developed like electric wire.  

On the other hand, how staged was it that the men -- bored with plodding along on walking horses -- were reading “Fifty Shades of Grey”?  These were not mountain men.  They worried about stinking.  But a waking-up glimpse of a sun-burned, exhausted, disheveled man who had slept in his clothes on a saddle-blanket, showed something very sexy: vulnerability.  When older men, including Val, showed up for a few moments, they brought with them a calm and sense of safety that the younger men needed.  When wives and girlfriends made a little surprise visit, that was fun.  A barbershop fit into that.

In the end, what these Texas AandM grads showed was a grasp of business that extended from the first flicker on Kickstarter asking for venture capital to this moment now when they are selling custom “packages” of film, book, clothing, showings, photographs, and every bit of possible profit and personality exploitation.  They are selling the squeal of the pig and the tail of the buffalo.  

I continue to be hooked by the guy who challenged all that and managed to make this his own personal experience, not controlled by any person or commercial interest.  He simply refused to complete the journey: he had done it all except for that last mile up to the shadow of Chief Mountain Port of Entry.  Then loaded his horse and drove up to join the others.  It was like the flaw in the Navajo blanket, an act of pride that pointed out the danger of hubris.  And it drove his rival, Masters, crazy by lifting control right out of his hands.  In an old John Wayne movie, Masters would have drawn his six-shooter and forced him to ride the last mile.  As it was, the voluntary nature of the ride was revealed.  Evidently there was no contract with a sacrifice clause.

Ben Thamer emerged as the realist and the guy who would cook.  He was the shortest, the most hip to vibes, and the most cynical.  Here’s an interview:
Thamer works on a “hunting ranch” which I hope means packing and guiding rather than one of those “bison in a box” set-ups.

Jonny Fitzsimons preserved his own identity even in the individual portraits of the men.  His lifted coffee mug conceals his face.  

I'd love to see a movie about the making of this movie.  It's a little like the passionate love scenes which seem so secret and intimate, but in fact involve three dozen busy workers with their apparatus.  Even with modern compact equipment, there had to be a steady contact with suppliers.  Consider those wonderful campfires with big chunks of sawn wood.  They could NOT have been packing that much wood on horses.  

But for me, knowing about all that does not spoil the story.  It merely expands to another encompassing point of view about logistics, the skill of moving through terrain that is so vital to major exploration and construction, to the military, and now, tragically, refugees.  The animal version is migration: birds at night across America, reindeer in Lapland and caribou in NW Territories, monarch butterflies to Mexico.  In Montana we are very aware of the major trail drives of cattle up from Texas, bringing with them those kind of tall, determined men -- some of them Ulster men.  That generation plus the same sort of men who came as WWII veterans, have just about disappeared locally, but their children are half-Blackfeet with the best qualities of both streams.  Some of them are trail guides who could take you over some of this same territory if you're up for it.

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