August 31, 2006

Ross McElwee's 'Sherman's March'/Jeffrey Blitz's 'Spellbound'

From Jeffrey Blitz's 'Spellbound.'

A few months ago, I had dinner with Jeffrey Blitz, whose documentary on spelling bees, Spellbound (Sean Welch, prod.), was my favorite film--not just documentary--of 2002. I'd never met him before--a mutual friend brought us together--but as we talked, it was almost eerie how similar our likes and dislikes were.

Late in the evening, I told him I had been asked to write a piece for this magazine on the film that most influenced me, and I was going to do it on Ross McElwee's Sherman's March.

Jeff started laughing and said that three years ago, he had been asked to write a piece for Documentary on the film that influenced him mostand it was Sherman's March.

It made perfect sense. Although on the surface Sherman's March and Spellbound are very different movies, the things I love about them are the same.

Both films are funny, which in itself makes them rare in the documentary world (unfortunately). More importantly, they share a particular kind of humor that manages to laugh at the world without sneering at it.

I had resisted seeing Spellbound when it first came out because I'd assumed it would be nothing more than a series of cheap shots at nerdy, eccentric kids and their domineering stage parents. But when a friend finally dragged me to the theater, I was surprised by the film's subtlety.

The kids were eccentric and some of the parents were extreme, but when the audience laughed, it was joyful and not mocking. The film was a celebration of human awkwardness, and I walked out feeling oddly patriotic--in love with this jumbled country, where people from all kinds of backgrounds come together to madly pursue things like spelling bees.

Sherman's March is funny in exactly the same way.

In one of my favorite scenes, a character in a restaurant is talking gravely with a woman and her daughter about the Antichrist when suddenly a guy in an Easter Bunny suit appears. As the little girl starts laughing, the scene strikes the perfect tone, capturing the clash between America's passion for religion and our love for dime store consumerism--and doing so with grinning affection.

One of the things I love best about that scene is that it exists at all. Many filmmakers, caught up in the interview they had set out to film, would have tried to "fix" the shot when the distracting bunny-guy stumbled into it; they would have changed the angle or zoomed tight on the main subject. But McElwee has an enviable openness to the quirks of life--a light-hearted respect for the world as it actually is, with its flaws and splinters and mud. He saw, as he shot, that the bunny wasn't ruining the moment; he was making it.

I think as filmmakers we assume too often that humor must either be escapist or dark, silly or cruel. But films like Spellbound and Sherman's March present another option. They are unflinchingly honest but also wise and warm. And watching them is a little like getting peed on by your baby as you change her--at once awful and ludicrous and hilarious in a way that makes you love her all the more.

 

Sherman's March is available through First Run Features. Spellbound is distributed on DVD by Sony Pictures.

Marshall Curry's 2005 film Street Fight earned an Academy Award nomination Best Documentary Feature.

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