Dir. by Andrew Renzi

Fishtail, the new documentary from Andrew Renzi, has all of the makings of a dull, ponderous film. It is essentially plotless, following the daily routines of a ranching family during calving season, and narrated by selected readings of Walt Whitman, a move that would smack of pretension in wrong hangs. Happily, that is not the case here. Fishtail is instead a soulful, poetic ode to the American West, an imagistic experience that undercuts Hollywood’s mythic relationship to the region without downplaying its majesty. It also doesn’t hurt that the poetry readings are from none other than Harry Dean Stanton, whose down to earth narration style strips away any notes of pretension, instead acting as a moving counterpoint to the imagery on screen.

And oh what imagery it is! Renzi wisely chose to film Fishtail on Super 16mm film, giving the unbelievably gorgeous Montana vistas a glowing glory and a naturalistic grainy quality that only celluloid provides. Through these images and the film’s hypnotic, ethereal score, Renzi portrays a west built on tranquility and the satisfaction of a hard day’s work. Yet even as Renzi luxuriates in the bucolic splendor of nature, he never fails to remind the viewer that the West is built less on a cohabitation with nature than on a mastery of it. There’s an unsettling feeling that sets in as you watch these ranchers hold down calves for tagging as their distressing mothers watch on in impotent rage. Even as Renzi does this, though, he never falls into a didactic or accusatory approach, allowing the images to speak for themselves. Watching the birth of a calf in graphic detail is at once beautiful, disgusting, life-affirming, and oddly tragic depending on how one approaches it. In this sense, Renzi’s film reaches the heights of visual poetry, captivating and obtuse in all of the best ways.