Not many filmmakers could pull off a filmed diary of their failed love lives. (And thank God that not too many try.) In the cult hit SHERMAN'S MARCH, subtitled "A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation," Ross McElwee not only keeps us interested and amused by his romantic frustrations,...read more
Not many filmmakers could pull off a filmed diary of their failed love lives. (And thank God that not too many try.) In the cult hit SHERMAN'S MARCH, subtitled "A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation," Ross McElwee not
only keeps us interested and amused by his romantic frustrations, he does so for nearly two hours and forty minutes, long past the point when this sort of film should have had audiences stampeding for the nearest exit.
McElwee didn't set out to make quite so egotistical a film. The Boston-based filmmaker, who was born in South Carolina, received a grant to make a film about a subject that personally intrigued him: the history and lingering effects of General Sherman's march to the sea at the end of the Civil
War, the first instance of modern warfare being used against a primarily civilian population. McElwee was particularly interested in the tragic aspects of Sherman, a Northerner who loved the South and who was reviled by both North and South after the war ended. However, prior to the start of
filming, his girlfriend left him to go back to her former boyfriend. Depressed (a not uncommon state for him, as he tells us), McElwee goes to visit his family in Charlotte, even though he knows they will hound him about settling down with a "nice Southern girl." When his sister tells him a former
girlfriend is in town to do a fashion show, he goes to meet her with his camera and tape recorder. (McElwee gives the impression that if he could afford the film stock, he would record his entire life, a trait his friends and family comment on with attitudes ranging from indulgence to pique. In
one outdoor scene, he is chased by a bee, but neither drops nor turns off his camera while he is running.)
McElwee is introduced to a fledgling actress, Pat, and uses his camera as a means with which to communicate and woo her. He starts to fall in love with her, but she leaves town for an audition. On sleepless nights, he turns the camera on himself to discuss his obsession with nuclear war, which
haunts his dreams when his personal life is troubled. For a year, he vacillates between working on the Sherman film and building, renewing, or hashing out relationships with women he meets or has known for years. His former teacher and friend Charlene, subject of a previous McElwee film named
after her, declares that his depression and loneliness are "boring" and sets him up with what she considers the perfect woman for him. (She turns out to be nothing of the sort.) Deciding that the whole notion of actively searching for the perfect person with whom to fall in love is ludicrous,
McElwee returns to Boston to teach and audit some classes--including one taught by an attractive singer.
Possessed of a dry, self-deprecating wit, McElwee isn't such a buffoon that we can't emphasize with him. SHERMAN'S MARCH has such an engagingly loose attitude that one is surprised to find it developing a structure (albeit a loose one), as the Civil War trail seems to mirror McElwee's own failed
search. (As if still wary from the war that ended 120 years earlier, everyone he speaks to seems obsessed with the possibility of nuclear war, from a moronic batch of survivalists to a Mormon woman who believes that such a war is about to bring in the Apocalypse.) The film is not without its
digressions, a few of which probably could have been trimmed to keep its running time down. Still, you have to admire the way he manages to end his film with the finale of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony without seeming vainglorious about it. McElwee has continued to make diary films like this one;
TIME INDEFINITE (1991) is a direct sequel to SHERMAN'S MARCH, and is even better. (Nudity, adult situations, profanity.)
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