Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March”: “A meditation on the possibility of romantic love in the South today”

By on March 12, 2016

Tomorrow night, March 13th, the Cinefamily continue their presentation “Underground USA: Indie Cinema of the 80s” — a retrospective of more than forty films over two months celebrating iconic indie cinema, co-presented by Cinespia — with a screening of Ross McElwee’s 1985 documentary Sherman’s March, aka Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation.

Director Ross McElwee also presents a collection of rarely seen short works today (Saturday, March 12th): Charleen or How Long Has This Been Going On? (1980) and Backyard (1984), which the Boston Globe said “is equal parts Samuel Beckett, Jean-Luc Godard and Werner Herzog.”

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McElwee will appear in person (at the Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles, CA) for both screenings. McElwee recently told LAist: “It’s gratifying that these three films will be shown together, because they chart my early rumblings and fumblings as an independent non-fiction filmmaker searching for a mode of self expression.”

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Backyard (1984)

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Sometime in the mid-80s, McElwee had originally intended to make a historical documentary about Civil War Union general William Tecumseh Sherman’s ruthless campaign through the southern states, in 1864, which went into history as Sherman’s” March To The Sea,” and he further planned to show the after-effects of what it meant for the South in the present day. He was given a prestigious $9000 grant to shoot his film.

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However, before leaving to begin his shoot, his girlfriend ended their relationship in New York, and suddenly McElwee no longer felt enthusiastic about telling Sherman’s story. We see him sweeping the floor of his New York loft apartment, wondering what to do next.

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What he decided to do was to turn his camera back upon himself, examining his recent broken heart and how their breakup was just the most recent in a long string of heartbreaks in his broken love life, telling us he intends to turn his film into a “meditation on the possibility of romantic love in the South today.”

McElwee returned home to the South, and began seeking out and then filming interviews with his ex-girlfriends, asking them about their past relationships, and why they hadn’t panned out, and those interviews about his past romantic misadventures — lensed during his extended road trip through the southern states — was intermingled with his personal life and relationships.

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McElwee’s road trip mostly adheres to Sherman’s route through Georgia, cutting a swath of destruction designed to force the Confederate South into submission — sometimes he ventures away from Sherman’s footsteps altogether — but the true goal of his research as we see in the film is to find a new girlfriend, and to do that, he must learn where it all went wrong for him with his past girlfriends, one of whom is an aspiring actress who longs to meet Burt Reynolds. Another, meanwhile, is survivalist. Yet another is a linguist, who is living like a hermit. And another one is a rock singer.

McElwee also introduces us to Charleen Swansea, an old friend and his former high school teacher who doles out a bit of advice for the director during his quest for answers, telling him he’ll never get a girlfriend as long as he’s looking at his prospects through a viewfinder.

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Of course, it’s easy to see how this subject matter and personal approach to the topic at hand could have ended up resulting a cosmic comic failure, embarrassing for McElwee and the other participants or even worse; just imagine, for instance, a scene where McElwee sets the camera running in the corner of a motel room, lies on a bed in the far corner, and drunkenly confesses his loneliness to the camera, and you can see how it might have gone very wrong.

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Instead, McElwee’s sweet Southern persona really comes across onscreen, and the way he approaches the topic of his film, and its executive, endears the viewer to the director’s plight. If the viewer has ever wondered why your own love life didn’t work out like you’d hoped it would, he or she will end up seeing themselves on the screen, with McElwee standing in for themselves. Sherman’s March is as poignant and touching today as it was when it was released in theaters thirty years ago, on September 5, 1986.

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Despite it’s length (157 minutes, or a little over 2 1/2 hours), Sherman’s March turned out to be a crowd pleasing hit when it was screened at the 1987 Sundance Film Festival, taking the Grand Jury Prize, and until the mid-90s, it was ranked as one of the highest grossing documentaries of all time (it was the tenth biggest grossing doc of all time during the time of its release).

Nowadays it would certainly have been in the Oscar conversation, but it failed to earn a nomination back in 1986.

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Here’s the full write-up about Sherman’s March from the Cinefamily — and you can buy tickets and read more here:

Freshly heartbroken, Ross McElwee set out to make a film about the South—namely the fallout of General Sherman’s famed march to the sea during the Civil War—but, as the film’s full title indicates, it’s much more than a documentary about the scorched earth Sherman left in his wake.

Instead, McElwee crafted an ideal of cinéma vérite, a simultaneously romantic and self-effacing tour of the South (his home) and its women. An artist of everyday life, McElwee lingers on the peculiarities of the prosaic, and teases out the normalcy of the peculiar, narrating his travels with an improvisational tone, deftly transforming the male gaze into something humble and questioning, as rife with self-criticism as it it with alluring images of women.

It’s intimate, but also fraught with tension introduced by filmmaking itself; his sister advises him to use his camera to meet people—”you have an instant rapport with people because you have a camera”—and he does, but it’s a complicated rapport; his camera is both a shield and an extension of his heart, his filming a form of flattery, and also distancing—as noted by McElwee’s firecracker of a former teacher, Charleen, who memorably scolds him, “turn off the camera Ross, this isn’t art, it’s life!”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
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