Sherman’s March

March 30, 2012

In 1981, a documentary filmmaker named Ross McElwee got some grant money together and set off for his native North Carolina to make a movie about Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s notoriously bloody march during the Civil War.

Perhaps that documentary will be produced some day, and admired by a few academic types. McElwee didn’t quite make it.

Just as he left for the South, his girlfriend dumped him. McElwee found himself alone and despondent; he started filming his relatives in North Carolina, just for the sake of shooting something. At which point his sister offhandedly suggested that his camera might be a great conversation piece, especially when it came to meeting women.

Sherman’s March is the film that resulted, and it still occasionally and metaphorically refers to the Civil War general. But mostly it’s a document of McElwee’s largely hapless, but eminently human, attempt to find romantic happiness during his odyssey through the South.

The camera is strapped to his shoulder seemingly all the time. In fact, we don’t see much of McElwee himself during the movie. Rather, we watch the parade of life and fascinating women that McElwee meets on his journey.

For a while, the poor guy seems to be on a bad run of luck. He meets Pat, who tantalizes with some amazing “cellulite exercises” and then goes to Atlanta with the vague hope of meeting Burt Reynolds and getting into movies. His camera watches implacably while she begins describing a screenplay she’s devised that sounds increasingly like the looniest ravings you’ve ever heard, all about flying to Venus, being decapitated, “and all they see is my head floating.”

Then there’s the innocuous-seeming woman who takes him for a visit to a bizarre survivalist troupe, who liken their freaky ideas to “Little House on the Prairie.”

As odd as some of the people are along this odyssey, McElwee never smirks or judges. He views them all with the same reserved curiosity. Sometimes this can seem a kind of heartlessness, as when he finally breaks with an ex-girlfriend, and his hand enters the frame to stroke her shoulder lovingly and sympathetically.

But, as troubled as the film is with such things, and with McElwee’s worrying about nuclear threats (the subject of apocalypse is oddly common to the people of the film), Sherman’s March is a weirdly happy experience. The film shows a world that veers and soars and turns back in on itself in crazy, inexplicable ways—found life, organized in a shrewd and suggestive manner.

Documentary really does prove the stranger-than-fiction cliché. How can you explain the mall appearance, during a deadly serious discussion of religion, of a 6-foot Easter Bunny (coincidentally entering the frame just at the mention of the Antichrist)? And, after you’ve watched the hilariously recurrent presence of Burt Reynolds, who accrues an almost supernatural meaning during the movie, you’ll never think of him in quite the same way again.

Over the course of two and a half hours, these events all come together. Sherman’s March is a song of the South that becomes, eventually and perhaps to McElwee’s surprise, a very off-center ode to joy.

First published in the Herald, March 27, 1987

Yeah, I really like this movie. It opened at the Market Theatre in Seattle. Seeing the occasional McElwee movie since then has been like getting a nice long letter from a friend you don’t keep in great touch with but always find really interesting. My stupid crack about a Sherman documentary being admired by a few academic types has been proven wrong endlessly, first by Ken Burns and then by the History Channel.