Sherman's March

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Ross McElwee

REVIEWED: 04-06-98

Charleen Swansea from director Ross McElwee's Sherman's March and subject of the eponymous Charleen

Ross McElwee is a modern master of cinema vérité -- rough, real-life documentary filmmaking that seeks to expose a subject's soul through its very lack of polish. In McElwee's case, that subject is almost always himself. Insistently personal, always autobiographical, occasionally exploitative, watching McElwee is like watching someone's (well-financed) home videos. That may sound like faint praise, but McElwee elevates the form. While his films can be maddeningly ordinary, at times they're almost genius. They are both insufferably egocentric and incredibly compelling; while they walk a fine line, they fall more often to art than to narcissism. Take, for example, Sherman's March, widely considered Ross McElwee's masterpiece. He had planned to examine the lingering effects of Sherman's march on the Southern psyche; instead, he ends up examining his own psyche, using a recent break-up to reflect upon the dilapidated state of his romantic life and begin a tongue-in-cheek search for the perfect mate. I'll say this: Ross McElwee knows who to follow when he's got that camera on. Sherman's March is a parade of fascinatin' Southern women, including Pat, a self-described female prophet and wannabe starlet who dreams of falling in love with Burt Reynolds; Winnie, a cow-milking hippie linguist of discerning intelligence; Joyce, a big-haired soul-singer on the Carolina lounge circuit; and so on and so on seemingly ad infinitum (it's a long film). Then there's McElwee himself, as the wry, vulnerable, and sometimes pathetic narrator with a fear of Armageddon and a passing interest in the life of William Tecumseh Sherman. Among the romantic parries and thrusts there are several priceless scenes, including a particularly painful honkytonk, the meeting of the Antichrist and the Easter bunny, and a discussion of Southern slavery so vapid that it boggles the mind. Sherman's March is undoubtedly a good film, amusing enough that its nearly three-hour length fairly slides by, but sometimes you have to wonder why McElwee keeps that damn camera running all the time. At times he comes dangerously close to exploiting his subjects' trust -- when an ex-girlfriend says "you're gonna make me cry" is when he zooms close to her face (the better to see the tears). He makes many of his subjects look like the sort of patent fools that documentarians delight in exposing, and more than one such fool doesn't like it. Perhaps the most telling line is offered as an aggravated aside by a burly man whose girlfriend McElwee is trying to steal: "You sure you never had anybody hit you?" I wondered the same thing, but at the same time I had trouble resenting poor Ross, with his heart so palpably on his sleeve. In the end, it is McElwee's genuine affection for the people he films that redeem the bald intrusions of Sherman's March.

--Jay Hardwig

Other Films by Ross McElwee
Six O'Clock News
Time Indefinite

Film Vault Suggested Links
James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction
American Cowboy
The Farm

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