Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Michael Moore doesn't make documentaries, he makes advocate essays on film. The most important
thing we take away from a Moore film is his relentlessly aggressive attitude. Ross McElwee is an
amiable documentarian with the good sense to just show things as they are. He's not assertive
enough to force even a 120 year-old subject on his audience, and his hilarious narration in Sherman's
March openly admits that his planned historical film metamorphosed into an entirely
different animal - a study of "Southern Womanhood" based on his own rather aimless romantic
adventures. What we take away from Sherman's March is the filmmaker's personality as
he moves among four or five relationships with women who don't conform to modern stereotypes.
It's a wonderful verité show that seems much shorter than its running time. The most
surprising thing about it is the intimacy of McElwee's camera. We get the feeling
that we're seeing these women as they really are, and it's fascinating to experience McElwee's
flirtations and infatuations right as they happen.
Ross McElwee gets a grant to make a documentary about Sherman's March to the sea but
after being dumped by his girlfriend charts instead his own experiences with women in the modern
south. His camera always running, he
meets and is introduced to a number of prospective females with and without the advice and/or
encouragement of his sister and a friend who used to be his teacher. He also reconnects with a
couple of old girlfriends, with less than perfect results.
Enter a room with a camera on your shoulder, especially a 16mm movie camera, and whatever you want
to film will be instantly ruined. Self-conscious people will object or flee. Who would ever
just behave normally? Ross McElwee pulls off this miracle in Sherman's March. The
camera is always there as he meets women set up by his relatives or his hilarously frank matchmaking
teacher friend. The camera even seems to attract a potential girlfriend, an aspiring actress (naturally)
who just happens to swim by Ross'es canoe or show up on rollerskates when he's filming in the
Unprepossessing and unassertive, Ross is almost as passive as his camera, which has to be the only
explanation for the wonderfully candid scenes here. He gets his subjects to accept his camera as
an extension of his body. and he must have perfected a way of talking to a person while free-holding
the camera off to
one side. The nicely-framed shots show most of his subjects freely conversing with him, unseen
off to the left. We only catch a few glimpses of Ross in mirrors, and in a couple of shots where
he turns the camera on himself to explain his current state of romantic confusion. The
signature shot has his subject leaning in to give Ross a kiss off-camera, leaving the view to bob
momentarily with an empty frame.
Ross's family sets him up with a lively and rather exhibitionist actress, who he accompanies to
the big city for agent interviews and auditions. She's the only one on camera who we feel
might be "performing" for Ross, and after a time, she exits the picture.
Ross then hooks up with
a dark-haired woman with a daughter. She takes him to a costume party (he dresses as a Civil War officer)
and out to see some survivalists. Without a hint of irony, McElwee's camera reveals them to be
isolationist nutcases who think that they have a right to live apart from society and its laws. Like
many of the southerners they feel that the Civil War was a righteous cause. One woman offers the wisdom
that she's no racist, and that the whole slavery question shouldn't be a big deal. She wouldn't force
anything on anyone - if people want to be slaves or don't want to be, that's their choice!
There are side adventures about fixing up an old Red MG car and Ross'es constant dreams about his
private obsession, nuclear war. The survivalists rationalize their activities as a reaction to
Ross then takes up more seriously with an interesting woman who lives a rustic life and talks about
her past adventures in college. Her only interests seemed to be linguistics and sex. She's a mellow
charmer who can make a pleasant picnic out of a five-mile forced hike on a muddy road. Ross doesn't
like the ticks but he really likes her. Unfortunately, when he comes back after a separation she's
acquired another boyfriend, a disagreeable development that plagues him more than once.
The central part of Sherman's March features the delightful Charleen Swansea, a close friend
who makes it her business to lecture, push, shove and hector Ross into getting serious with the women
she finds for him. Some of her harangues about romance and what women want are priceless. The main
female she finds for him is not at all bad looking, but Charleen introduces them with helpful little
phrases like, "Now I expect you two to be married before Christmas!" She also neglects to mention the
fact that the girl is a devout Mormon and wants a husband who will "bring the priesthood into their
home." This girl is also stocking up on survival necessities, not for a nuclear war, but in preparation
for the rapture of her church'es "final days."
The film is all southern accents and interesting people. As the actress leaves to try and find Burt
Reynolds in the city her mother makes a scene, bursting into tears because her daughter's life is
so out of order. The daughter smiles. Mom does this all the time. Charleen accompanies Ross to
Civil War monuments that might have meaning in that unfilmed docu about General Sherman, the one
McElwee is supposed to be filming.
Ross alights on another girl, a singer, and follows her around as she practices and dresses for
various engagements. But the magic isn't there either and she follows through with her plans to go to
New York. Like several of the others, she exits by car waving goodbye. We almost wonder if Ross'es
presence is what made her decide to go!
Ross gets most serious about another girlfriend from the past with whom he tried to connect
several times in the past. As has always happened before, there is another man to whom she bounces back,
leaving Ross in the lurch. This time Ross is the one who feels the strong attraction, and he philosophizes
about his predicament - you can't talk somebody into loving you. She's the only one he pressures, and
the only one who tells him he has to turn the camera off.
Miraculously, it all holds together and does turn into a portrait of modern Southern Womanhood. Ross
is himself originally a southerner but seems to lack whatever's required to please these particular
women. Perhaps Charleen is right. When we last see him, Ross is back in Boston and smitten by a music
teacher. Life goes on.
Just about the only people that McElwee's camera doesn't charm is the entourage of star Burt Reynolds,
in town shooting a film out in public. They treat him like a dog in the manger when he tries to get Burt
to talk on camera. Here's the ideal male for many of the southern women Ross encounters, and we see them
shamelessly throwing themselves at him, ecstatic just to be in his presence.
First Run Features' DVD of Sherman's March augments the film with some well-chosen extras. The actual
feature looks as good as its 16mm roots, with variable color and sound. Most of McElwee's camerawork
is excellent under the circumstances and his framing always gives us a feel of these southern
towns and country houses. On one of my DVD setups, some scenes had a pulsing in the focus - every
couple of seconds the picture would go slightly indistinct. The effect is hard to see on another monitor,
and I'm unsure whether it is part of the original photography, a fault of transfer or encoding or
just a tic with my particular player. I only noticed it for a few seconds here and there.
The disc comes with a Ross McElwee text bio, a photo gallery to help us keep the players straight
and an amazing letter by General Sherman to the mayor of Atlanta, where he offers polite regrets to
explain that he won't change his mind - the whole population must leave while he burns the
city. There's also a nice interview piece with Ross that brings us up to date with him - showing
the woman he eventually married and his kids. He made a movie about the marriage and expected it to
be light and happy, but only recorded a number of personal problems. McElwee's docus are the perfect
example of "life being what happens while one is busy making other plans."
The box text mentions "selections from other McElwee films." I didn't find anything like that in the
special features menu.
As an inside joke to my kids - Ross McElwee is a graduate of Brown University.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Sherman's March rates:
Supplements: Bio, interview excerpt with Ross McElwee, photo gallery, General Sherman letter
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 17, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson