Criterion Prediction #91: Sherman’s March, by Alexander Miller
Title: Sherman’s March
Director: Ross McElwee
Cast: Ross McElwee, Charleen Swansea, DeDe McElwee, Patricia Rendleman, Burt Reynolds
Synopsis: Southerner Ross Mcelwee tries to shoot his documentary on the devastation left by Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman while trying to navigate the perils of dating and understanding the changing role of women in the nuclear age.
Critique: At first I didn’t know how to take Sherman’s March, but as the film progressed I found its indecipherable tone compelling, and McElwee’s sad-sack persona was endearing and often hilarious.
Could this awkwardly self-conscious method of lensing life be an aesthetic stroke of genius, or did this erratic southerner fall ass backward into documentaries? Regardless, we’re all the better for his idiosyncratic vision which is at times disarmingly funny and satirically observant, with moments of moving poignancy. Mcelwee is both the subject and author of his diary-like essay films, and Sherman’s March is the genesis of his creative stride.
The film opens like any typical historical documentary, a dry and conventional narration summarizing a broad thesis of what Sherman’s March is supposed to be. Soon, the scholarly narration drops out, and the film’s duality presents itself. The instructional encounter is one of the best ways to summarize the movie’s perverse irony. The first few minutes are about as close to the history of the film’s promise as we’re going to get.
McElwee’s southern heritage is at the root of his work, and it’s often a driving source of his personally-driven style of moviemaking. Sherman’s March captures this contrast of values, both outmoded and current while our creator, listless and consumed by his anxieties of love and nuclear war, soaks all of the strangeness of life through his camera.
Sherman’s March breaks from formal documentary to a home movie to a self-deprecating essay film, introducing a colorful series blind dates, proposals, and encounters with women whom friends and family consider “proper Southern ladies,” the intended cure-all to our protagonist’s woes.
Sherman’s March was the juncture when Mcelwee’s incidental brilliance came to light; artistic pretension goes to the wayside in looking at this (seemingly) accidental auteur. McElwee isn’t set on being the best filmmaker or technician, nor is he juggling any precept of artistic gain. It’s the formless structure that makes his work so endearing. His innocent foibles – technical issues like batteries dying or sound recorders stop working – and camera moves – in the up-and-down motion when Ross is agreeing with someone, or over the shoulder of the person in the frame when they receive a hug – give the film personality.
McElwee’s persona is that of a shy, but insightful ethnographer whose made himself and his family the focus of his features. In doing so, he’s finding solace in exploring life through his camera, enabling his aesthetic resolve. Sherman’s March is by proxy the antithesis of the fly-on-the-wall style of documentary filmmaking; directors like Pennebaker and Wiseman were maneuvering their cameras to see and not be seen, Mcelwee’s presence is the centerpiece of the film.
The relationship of subjects and the camera is something of a paradox. The relief of Mcelwee’s work is that it dispels those ruminations of “who’s filming who” a tiresome theory that all too frequently hovers around documentaries.
It might all seem like ironic posturing, or exploiting people for a few laughs, but Mcelwee’s work is remarkably unpretentious and unprovocative. In Sherman’s March, he finds the perverse irony of human behavior as well as filmmaking, and it’s self-sabotaging mechanics as part of his style.
Sherman’s March is a 2 ½ hour documentary that not only circumvents the source of his titular project but dives headlong into the deeply personal, while being a metaphysical examination of finding romance and understanding the particular notion surrounding southern womanhood. McElwee is something of an enigma, a one-person show whose ventures are emblematic of the American experience as told by a homespun satirist.
McElwee’s always chasing after something, and by happenstance the subjects of his movies elude him; The Civil War and General Sherman becomes a study of women, dating, nuclear war, and Burt Reynolds.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: What I like more than the documentaries in The Criterion Collection are the pseudo-documentaries that arrive in the form of F for Fake and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, or the genre-bending hybrids from Edgar Rouch and Jean-Pierre Gorin. The sheer indefinable work of Ross McElwee would be right at home in The Criterion Collection, whose work has been distributed through First Run Features, a respectable company that would likely benefit from sharing titles with The Criterion Collection. As it stands, a chunk of McElwee’s movies are showing on FilmStruck – the start of something on the horizon, or a fluke? Watch them while they’re available!