Ross McElwee's 'Sherman's March'
For a reason that has since been lost to me, during my last year of college in 1990, I volunteered to write a thesis on something called "reader response" criticism. Stanley Fish was probably the most fun author on my bibliography and, if you know Dr. Fish, you can imagine that my honors thesis was not much fun at all. I toiled on the project for months.
I spent whole days weighing whether to include the word "tractus" in my title. On long breaks from fruitless writing, I would wander down to the Charles Theater, Baltimore's seedy art house and, if I didn't like what was playing there, I'd go onto campus to see what the handful of film classes were running. It was then that I happened on Sherman's March, directed by Ross McElwee. I saw it against the advice of my pals ("It's almost three hours of documentary," they said. "Remember how f-ing long Shoah was!"), and it only goes to prove that even good friends can't be trusted when it comes to giving out movie advice.
Sherman's March opens with McElwee's deadpan voiceover stating that his girlfriend has left him. Now, I've always been exceptionally private about my private life, as my parents and my brothers were about theirs, and I found McElwee's openness astonishing. McElwee tells us that he's been given a grant to make a historical documentary about General William Tecumseh Sherman's Civil War march through the South. But, faced with the sudden departure of his girlfriend, he finds himself compelled to take the money and his camera and make a movie about his own search for love in the modern South. I felt his vulnerability as well as his wonderful mischieviousness, and I enjoyed them as if they were my own.
It was my first introduction to a personal style of filmmaking, to filmmaking as autobiography, and it was also one of the first times anyone spoke candidly to me (or so it felt) about the difficulties of love. McElwee roughly hews to Sherman's route as he travels to Atlanta, Savannah and Columbia, approaching, flirting with and dating a series of women. You've got to appreciate his self-effacing lines, his voiceover and his mishaps to know that this isn't creepy at all—just touching and sad and incredibly funny.
This may have been the first very funny documentary I had ever seen, and it opened me up to the possibilities that a filmmaker could be so honest as to include the comedy of real life. Most documentaries are so scrupulous about cutting out what's funny, but McElwee knew that audiences were smart enough to see that humor isn't at all the same as mean-spiritedness. In some ways, it's the exact refutation of it.
Sherman's March wasn't the first autobiographical documentary ever made, but it was the first one that I saw. And it spoke to me. I left the theater scheming. How could I turn my crappy tractus into a diary? Alas, it was impossible. I finished writing a few months later and let it vanish into academic obscurity and the far corner of my memory. But the movie to which I escaped in my misery has stayed with me ever since.
Sherman's March is available through First Run Features.
Jeffrey Blitz co-produced and directed the Academy Award-nominated Spellbound.