I have been absent from these pages for quite some time as we leaned into the gargantuan task of finishing our documentary film — The Outside Circle: A Movie of the Modern West. It’s true that the title of the film has changed, which was a difficult decision but ultimately serves the needs of the movie—which is my solemn task—and comes with no small deliberation and counsel from people who know far more about making movies than I do.
I’d like to bring you up to speed on the film, such as I can, and maybe offer some things you didn’t know.
First, this is not the movie I set out to make, and I mean that in the best possible way. My initial desire to make a film was limited in its ambitions, but it became very clear to me, very quickly and with no shortage of utter suprise, that it was in fact a much larger project. That was a result, I think, of the enthusiasm of the people who supported the idea of making a film about Len Babb, and it is a testament to the friendships he has cultivated and the work that he does. I did not know, when I first sat in my barn to make a GoFundMe page, that the project would consume nearly two years of my life, result in great and lasting friendships, or find me in Waddie Mitchell’s living room discussing his adventures with Claude Dallas. I did not know we would fly to Texas to interview a movie director, and to visit with Adrian Brannan on a muggy afternoon in the heart of Comanche country, drinking nine gallons of coffee and enjoying a stunning solo acoustic concert. I did not know that we would have the opportunity to sit with Al Jackson, a Shoshone elder who for more than thirty years sacrificed his body for the health of his family at the Sundance Ceremony, and listen to him speak from the heart in his native language.
I could not have known any of these things, nor anticipated any of the other countless opportunities and blessings that came our way in the process of making this film. I could not have known that 90 minutes is a hard industry standard for documentaries and that with hundreds of hours of film we would have to leave 99% of it on the floor. That process of editing the film down, of discovering the narrative threads, and in Bud Force’s words “killing your children” – was grueling and in some cases even heartbreaking because we learned so much, and there is so much we wanted to tell that simply would not fit into the final version.
But this is the War of Art, one presumes, and we hope that what we have come up with will find the audience it deserves.
The film we have made is really a weave of three different narratives. First is a narrative around Len Babb, about his incredible life as a buckaroo and artist. Next is a story of the Murphy family, fifth generation ranchers in the outback, and third is a story of Victoria Jackson, a Paiute-Shoshone woman, and her family of Indian cowboys and ranchers from McDermitt, Nevada. Braided together, these stories tell of lives on the Outside Circle, on the far margins of the deafening cultural factories of America, now dominated by the machinery of anger and friction and political righteousness, with its smokestacks pumping out metric tons of toxic language and ideology. To be certain, no one in our film is apolitical, but the life we document is far removed from the blast furnaces and sparks of that industrial hatred, and is dominated instead by a quiet and necessary adherence to a common set of values.
There is, I suppose, a Heraclitian aspect to our film because nothing is fixed in the outback. The petroglyphs weather and the granite grows its rinds of colorful lichen, the courses of creeks and rivers change in drought or in flood, wildfire scorches the sage and forests alike. The horses and cattle most certainly change, and so too do the people change, adapting to time and circumstance to meet the challenges of the wider cultural evolution, markets, and technology.
But there is also a reassuring human constant at the heart of the stories we are trying to tell. A steadfastness in the values that animate the dreams, desires, and daily conduct of the people who invited us into their lives. “Faith,” as John Langmore expresses in his terrific interview, “…in the Almighty, and in whatever form that takes for you,” is a centering concept and a guiding force in all of the people we were privileged to interview. And while that faith isn’t worn on the sleeve it is a constant and reassuring guide to the people who practice it. Family too is at the heart of our film, where that devotion informs every decision because the imperative is on raising children strong enough to carry the values of their people forward into a hard and cynical world that seems now only to deride them. And of course great friends, the kind that will drop everything to lend a hand in times of need, are valued as the greatest storehouse of treasures – the result of a life well lived.
And I’ve come to see the final value – community – as something other than just an ingredient in the recipe. I think now that community is the result of combining those values — faith, family, and friends — and of taking great care in how those ingredients are combined and nurtured in the flame. I think of Jan Murphy from the Murphy Ranch, who has helped keep the Murphy Ranch a legacy for her grandchildren, but who works tirelessly in Paisley to help those in need. And of Victoria Jackson, who is a ferocious advocate for the rights of Native Americans and who has somehow managed to arrive at that place without being consumed by bitterness. These are better people than I am, frankly, and I admire them.
And I think also that the landscape, that tremendous American Outback, which is most certainly a central character in our film, is the perfectly seasoned cast-iron pan where all of that great cooking is done.
I don’t know if any work is ever truly finished. Years ago, at a dinner table with the novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane, and some of the other graduate students in our writing program, McGuane mentioned that “at some point you just have to walk away.” He noted that he hated book tours because by the end of the tour all he could see in his own work was the mistakes he had made. I feel some hard sense of that now, and truthfully it gnaws.
But I knew that going into it. And so we begin our film with a quote from Barry Lopez. He wrote that the perceptions of any people are like pieces of damp paper scattered across the landscape, hung up in the brush, to be collected and deciphered, and that “no one can tell the whole story.” We have certainly not told the whole story. But we have told some of it, in the best way we knew how to do it, and we hope that it in some way what we have collected and deciphered will serve its highest function, which is as a window into that life on the Outside Circle, and to acknowledge and to honor, and in fact to love, and love deeply, the people who ride it.