"... I'm filming my life in order to have a life to film like some primitive organism that somehow nourishes itself by devouring itself -- growing as it diminishes..."
Director Ross McElwee's Sherman's March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation is a sprawling cinéma vérité and a unique personal odyssey. It begins in a barren loft apartment, white light through the windows, with a calm, whispery and laconic voice-over. North Carolina-bred McElwee tells us he had intentions of making a documentary about the Union General's Civil War "March to the Sea." Besides the grandiosity of Sherman's campaign, McElwee is also fascinated by Sherman's paradoxical nature: how did one who had come to love the South end up ultimately destroying it? Yet the idea for his doc is dashed when McElwee finds himself in deep grief after recently being left by his girlfriend. McElwee soon returns home to North Carolina, and begins thinking about the women in his life. He first meets up with Patricia, a free-spirit who defies the conventions of her upbringing by trying to make a break as an actress. McElwee films her with a Woody Allen-idiosyncratic lust as she does her "cellulite exercises." Like many of the women in this film, Pat goes off to pursue someone or something else and soon we almost miss her in the way that McElwee does. His rambling trek follows some of the regions Sherman had destroyed with his 'scorched earth' methods. Armed with his camera, he meets up with isolationists (they rail against the government intervention but praise nuclear proliferation), plutonium protesters, and even a wannabe Burt Reynolds body double (Reynolds is filming Stroker Ace in North Carolina and around Georgia -- one of Pat's dashed dreams as a potential co-star and a cause for some excitement for the locals). The women he presents to us are his source of love, admiration, desire and also his agony. He's often sleepless, thinking about his personal failures and nuclear war (it was filmed in the early 80s, a few years before its 1986 release).
With its lack of phoniness and judgement, its frayed edges (sometimes the picture or the audio goes out) and revealing moments, Sherman's March is a stunning American portrait. It's a bit long, but is so full of compelling and wistful scenes: a coming storm over an isolated Georgia island, an aspiring singer (Joyous Perrin) belting out "Respect" in a Sears parking lot, Pat's convoluted and brilliantly strange idea for a movie, potential love-mate Dee Dee's performance of "Just the Way You Are" for an all-girl's school ("the cradle of Southern womanhood") and her subsequent description of her Mormonism. McElwee has a quiet nature that seems to cause these women to open up to him in unexpected ways. I was reminded of some of the quote I posted yesterday by Darian Leader describing Robocop: "...he is no longer just a male biological body: he is a body plus machinery." The camera is a powerful, sexual piece of machinery in this film, as it captures the spirit of and McElwee's carnality for these women. And perhaps his subjects divulge so much because they know they are on camera (an ecstatic crowd wanting to glimpse Burt Reynolds becomes a self-reflexive scene). McElwee knowingly stretches some of Sherman's legend and mythology into his own personal strife even when it seems trite. His first person account is perhaps landmark and familiar to us now with such a bevy of quirky docs and reality television but because of its heart and unbridled nature, the film remains an engaging chronicle. ***1/2