Sherman’s March: One of Best Docus Ever Made

Ross McElwee, an artist in residence at Harvard since 1982, subscribes to the personal school of documentaries–cinema verite at its extreme form.  He holds that “it’s possible to film “an approximation of the truth that’s also of interest to someone other than yourself.”  His style is influenced by Jim McBride’s self-searching movie, David Holzman’s Diary (1978) in that it explores the irony, misery and elation in the quotidian.

A filmmaker-anthropologist with a rare appreciation for the eccentric detail, McElwee enjoys–and perhaps even needs–to bare his soul on screen.  McElwee put his philosophy to work in Sherman’s March, a film that interweaves his own hapless search for a girlfriend into that of William T. Sherman’s bitter Civil War trail.

Born and bred in Charlotte, North Carolina, McElwee was fascinated with the ironies in the career of Sherman, a man still vividly remembered in the South.  In his narration, McElwee says that he had initially hoped to center his film on the after-effects in Georgia and in the Carolinas of the “total warfare” waged by General Sherman during the final months of the Civil War.  But during his own march from North to South, something devastating happened–his girlfriend left him.

McElwee’s dry narration and deadpan expression make him a sly clown with a distinctive comic personality.  Subtitled “a meditation on the possibility of romantic love in the South today,” his documentary retraces the path of Sherman’s march, while meeting various oddball young women and looking up old girlfriends.

McElwee tells at the beginning of “Sherman’s March,” that he had originally hoped that his film would center around the after-effects still to be found in Georgia and the Carolinas, of the “total warfare” waged by Gen. Sherman during the final months of the Civil War.

In the film, McElwee retraces the path of Sherman’s march, while picking up oddball young women and looking up old girlfriends.  He admits that the movie is “meditation on the possibility of romantic love in the South today.”  He shows a rare appreciation for the eccentric details of our edgy civilization.

Though made in 1981, it is a timely memoir of a whole era.   Remarkably, the film steers clear of self-indulgence and self-pity–a miracle under the circumstances.  The jilted McElwee exposes with charm and wit his grief, loss, and defeats in a way that easily elicits viewers empathy (and in moments sympathy and pathos) as he traipses 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 the Southern psyche, so that common dreams of apocalypse and rebirth seem rooted in Sherman’s massacre of civilians–as does the region’s fundamentalism, militant survivalism, and strong sense of ritual and family life.

For McElwee, the feature is about “how history bleeds into the present.” End result captures the obsessive state of mind in which he shot his documentary, and then took four years to edit it.

The various women who wouldn’t surrender to him. “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.”

“Was it supposed to be a movie about the Civil War, or a device for meeting women?”  “Both,” he says.  “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.”

“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.”  No too easy to make a pass.”

Among the docu’s more fascinating aspects is McElwee’s mode of shadowing of Sherman.  Unlike the (in)famous historical figure, the director is not killing people, but he is shooting them.  His sharp, poignant camera serves as an aggressive  weapon when he courts and scores and as a protective shield when he is defeated and has to retreat.  The presence of the camera is continuing to influence and invade everyday people and their ordinary live: “You’re aware of the media, so if someone comes up to you with a camera, you really are suspicious.”

In the past, he has made Space Coast, a dotty look at life in Cape Canaveral.  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.”

At the end of Sherman’s March, he met Betsy in Boston, and after they split up, he met Marilyn Levine, who went on to become a co-director.  McElwee’s next film, Time Indefinite, covers the post-Sherman’s March years, dealing with his wedding (to another documentarian), a relative’s death, and the birth of his son.