BIG SHOT: Sherman’s March

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In Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee and his camera barrel through the South on a tour-de-force of twenty-something self-doubt and heartbreak. Such navel-gazing terrain is not my usual purview, as it’s rare that self-indulgence pays off as much for the viewer as it does for the filmmaker. It’s supposed allow for easy alignment between the film and audience, but it’s rare that material in this hyper-identifiable vein appeals to me. It seems the only way to approach Sherman’s March and my reaction to it is to rip a page out of McElwee’s playbook, and get personal.

McElwee immediately seems contrived, filming himself wandering around an empty loft as he narrates the opening premise of the film; he was on his way to start making this straightforward documentary about General Sherman and his historical Civil War campaign through the South when his girlfriend broke up with him and now he doesn’t know what to do with himself. It’s only the first of about a zillion times that McElwee, through narration and on-screen conversation, implies that he really doesn’t know what went wrong with whatever woman is the cause of his latest heartbreak, painting himself as just a nice guy getting yanked around. As the film goes on, this irritating, but initially harmlessly oblivious dude-vision becomes part of McElwee’s arsenal against each woman to cross his path. He pushes the camera in their face, forcing attention wholly on them. He is particularly invasive with the ex-girlfriends he interviews. He asks intensely personal questions about their relationships with him, other specific men, men in general, and the world at large. And though some of the questions go unanswered – whether shied away from, flat-out denied, or stormed out on – the tables never turn.

One thing that can be said for McElwee’s nigh unshakable female focus is that it brings us into contact with an amazing roster of characters. Pat, the wacky actress with big dreams and a predilection for doing anti-cellulite exercises in skirts with no underwear on; Claudia, the single mom fashion plate interior designer who ends up being really into right-wing survivalist weirdness; Winnie, the razor-sharp linguist living on a wild island with a thousand kinds of insects; Joyous, the bad-ass bassist and singer rocking juke joints with a wicked smile and fire-engine red pants. McElwee’s camera provides very intimate portraits of these women. Though his style is loose and candid, single moments and tiny details crystallize – hair flying in the wind, bare arms, singing, swimming, walking away. He doesn’t understand any of them, but he definitely sees them – and that is interesting to watch

There are other frustrating elements of Sherman’s March. The shallow political commentary on nuclear power and the Cold War is misplaced and half-baked, feeling like an attempt to come off as a well-informed citizen of the world. Often, McElwee breaks from his own narrative to return to General Sherman, drawing superficial connections between this historical figure and himself. There’s a whole bit where McElwee’s brother hooks him up with a classic car that breaks down at inopportune moments, creating a strand of precious aesthetic twerpiness. As a result, it is pretty plain to see why none of his relationships have worked out – he’s still trying to figure out how to get over himself.

It occurs that it isn’t obvious that I love Sherman’s March, and moreover, find it endlessly watchable. The weaknesses, the irritation at McElwee’s still-forming person are actually what make the movie work, because McElwee himself explicitly acknowledges that he is wandering aimlessly. There’s no evolution in his relationships with the women in the film, just repetition. The evolution is in the filmmaker, specifically realized in the editing room. The women force him to recognize his shortcomings and throughout Sherman’s March there are moments where we can sense the editorial McElwee cringing at his presence in the film. He usually manages to take the embarrassment and turn it into a laugh at his own expense. The levels of obsession at play – in the reality of these relationships, in the production of the film, then in the assembly of the material – make the film an extraordinary, affirming document of self-realization. Only the most intense, unapologetic, aimless, yet self-aware navel-gazing does it for me, I guess. I’m sure any of my exes could tell you the same thing.