Sherman’s March: Ross McElwee’s Documentary

“Sherman’s March” a charming documentary, is based on a quirky and artful conceit. It’s a personal essay in which filmmaker Ross McElwee muses about his own losing romantic battles and cataloging the women in his life.

McElwee established a unique corner in the 1980s indie film arena. He won a best documentary award from the USA Film Festival, which later became the Sundance Film Festival.

McElwee’s sequel, “Time Indefinite” (1993), which covers the post-Sherman’s March years, dealing with his wedding (to another documentarian), a relative’s death, and the birth of his son, is equally quirky and rewarding.

McElwee tells us at the beginning of “Sherman’s March” that he had originally hoped for his film to center around the aftereffects still felt in Georgia and the Carolinas of the “total warfare” waged by General Sherman during the final months of the Civil War. Born and bred in Charlotte, N.C., McElwee was fascinated with the ironies of Sherman’s career. As is known, for obvious reasons, Sherman is more vividly remembered in the South than in the North.

On McElwee’s own march from the north to the south, something devastating happened, his girlfriend left him, which he describes in candid details in his docu. McElwee’s dry narration and deadpan face make him an exceptionally comic, uniquely American film personality.

In the film, McElwee retraces the path of Sherman’s march, while picking up oddball young women and looking up old girlfriends. He labels his bittersweet movie as “a meditation on the possibility of romantic love in the South today.”

McElwee is a filmmaker-anthropologist, with a rare appreciation for the eccentric details of our edgy civilization. Although the movie was made in 1986, it’s a timely memoir of the 1980s. In some respects, his style is similar to Jim McBride’s self-searching faux documentary movie “David Holzman’s Diary.” Both films explore the irony, misery, and elation in the quotidian–in the most routine and ordinary events.

McElwee, a teacher and artist in residence at Harvard since 1982, belongs to the school of personal cinema verite, with such directors as Ed Pincus (“Diaries,” 1980) and, of course, Michael Moore, who carried the format to an extreme. McElwee holds that it’s possible to film “an approximation of the truth that’s also of interest to someone other than yourself.” McElwee is a filmmaker-anthropologist with a rare appreciation for the eccentric details, who enjoys–perhaps even needs–to bare his soul in public and on screen.

Remarkably, McElwee and his docu steer clear of self-indulgence, self-righteousness, and self-pity. The jilted McElwee exposes just enough of his grief to get you to sympathize if not identify with him as he travels through the South, interviewing old girlfriends and chasing after new ones.

Drawing on his own anxieties, he is able to build an allusive and astonishing portrait of a distinctly Southern male psyche, so that common dreams of demise and rebirth seem rooted in Sherman’s massacre of civilians–as does the region’s fundamentalist survivalism, based on a strong sense of ritual and family life. Past and present blend in McElwee’s wotk based on his believe that “history bleeds into the present.”

Only an inquisitive director, with an obsessive state of mind could have a made an epic film that took four years to finish. As he notes: “You make a film like this, and it’s a very public statement, but it’s made by a very private person, and herein lies the paradox I have to learn to deal with as long as this film is going out into the world.”

Asked whether it was supposed to be a movie about the Civil War or a device for meeting women, he says: “Both. I really was going to make a film, but I was also perfectly willing to let the film end any time I met the right woman. That would be the conclusion of the film.”

McElwee concedes that “the camera made it easier to meet women, but I was so totally drained by the process of making a film that I wasn’t really able to…I had a camera in one hand, a microphone in the other, and a tap recorder strapped to my belt.” In other words, even technically, it was not the best or easiest conistions to make a pass.

There are a lot of dramatic tensions in “Sherman’s March,” but none more fascinating than McElwee overshadowing Sherman himself. Unlike the controversial General, The director is not killing people, but he is shooting them, and the camera serves both as a weapon and a shield. At the end of Sherman’s March, McElwee meets Betsy in Boston. They split up, but then shortly after he meets Marilyn Levine, who also becomes a co-director.

Filmmaker and teacher Rickie Leacock has observed how it was possible 20 years ago to make films about the Kennedy family or well-known entertainers and get a fairly natural sense of who they are when they’re not on stage. But that’s totally impossible now, because people are so conscious of their images in the media.

Says McElwee: “I think this has even filtered down to everyday people like you and me in large cities. You’re aware of the media, so if someone comes up to you with a camera, you really are suspicious.”

He made “Space Coast,” a dotty look at life in Cape Canaveral, and then a movie about the Berlin Wall. He chose Berlin, because he wanted to get as far away from romantic and personal material as possible. “I wanted to go to a part of the world that wasn’t mine, and make a film about people I had no connection to. It was psychologically healthy for me to do that.”