Buck Brannaman deals with "horses with people problems" in the new documentary
Buck Brannaman deals with "horses with people problems" in the new documentary Buck. Silverdocs
I thought it might be fun to take a moment out of Silverdocs 2011 to talk about a movie that you may actually be able to see! At a local theater! Soon! Maybe even now!
I'm exaggerating, of course: There will certainly be others with theatrical releases (I saw Page One here — that's the one about The New York Times — and that's certainly around), and you'll be able to see many if not most of them sooner or later. But this is a very fine film that I encourage you to seek out if you can find it. It's playing in the D.C. area starting today (over in Bethesda), but it's rolling out in a bunch of places, and you can look for a theater near you that might be showing it here.
If you read about Buck, the most prominent words you may hear are "horse whisperer." DON'T PANIC.
You hear those words because Buck Brannaman, the central figure, trains people to work better with their horses, and helps train horses to work better with people. He does indeed have some kind of crazy horse mojo that leaves people slack-jawed after they work with a horse for months and get nowhere, and in five minutes, Buck has it following him around, as one person notes, "like a dog."
What's more, Buck did work as a consultant on The Horse Whisperer movie — an experience that leads to one of the documentary's best moments, in which Buck tries to hold in his disdain while explaining that movie people think you're supposed to use horses that are actors, while Buck thinks you can ... you know, use horses that are horses.
The fear I had going into Buck was that it would be some kind of a leaden, woozy, reverential attempt to convince me that Buck can secretly communicate at a molecular level with horses; that he's doing some kind of magic. This, happily, is not the case at all. Buck's philosophy, if anything, is shown to be rigorously logical, as he demonstrates in one of his classes when it takes him about 30 seconds to condition a man to act like a scared horse. (You sort of have to see it.)
What he's telling you is that the way horses react to people isn't unknowable: it makes sense, and very often, the way people get in trouble with their horses is by expecting them to react in a way that's senseless — to become calm and cooperative by being hit a lot, for instance. From Buck's opening description of how it looks to a horse when someone tries to ride it for the first time, you become aware that this guy knows something, and he knows how to translate it in a way that other people can understand.
We talked earlier in the week about the documentary The Swell Season and the fact that true stories can sometimes more effectively convey lessons that are difficult. Buck demonstrates that they can also sometimes be the most effective way to convey lessons we could be inclined to consider too easy if they were fiction. As it turns out, Buck was a child performer who did rope tricks with his brother — they were even on What's My Line? — and their father punished them brutally when they didn't perform. Buck was beaten for years before he was rescued and placed in a foster home, and those experiences are central to his philosophy of handling animals. He believes that trying to change behavior with physical punishment, as well as a constant attitude of disapproval and negativity, destroys trust between people and animals just like it does between parents and their children.
The straight line from his experiences as a kid to the ethic that has become the focus of his adult life would have seemed heavy-handed as a story someone made up, but when you see him, and when you hear him explain it, it makes sense and doesn't seem forced. And it's hard to argue with his successes, which have put his classes in such high demand that he travels around the country for most of the year giving seminars.
Having said all this, as fascinating as Buck and his family are (he has a wife and kids, including a pistol of a teenage daughter who travels with him some of the time), and as moving as the arc of his life may be, the film has a crucial dose of humor that rescues it from being at all maudlin. Buck has a fabulously dry, often self-deprecating wit, and without it, things could have turned pretty syrupy, simply because so many people in the film admire him so much. Director Cindy Meehl clearly admires Buck, too, but she's very wise to infuse his story with light, and to make it primarily a chronicle of a great teacher. (Buck's wonderful and loving foster mother, who essentially became his second mom, is also hilarious and one of my favorite people not just in this movie, but in anything I've seen at Silverdocs.)
Buck is a very well-made film in other ways: the scenery is stunning, the horses are beautifully and lovingly shot, and there's a steadiness to the pacing that moves the story forward while giving it room to breathe. It's a fine, thoughtful film, and one I really loved and strongly recommend.