NOTE: I saw that Sherman’s March was just added to Netflix Instant, which reminded me that I reviewed it in April 2009 on the old ESFS blog. Ross McElwee’s 1985 film was covered as part of a documentaries festival, which also included Hearts and Minds and 1968’s Salesman.
As we talked about in the Salesman review and discussion last week (which commenced with me facing Dub by using Albert Maysles as a weapon against him), the Maysles’ style typified a rather severe documentary aesthetic greatly influenced by Jon Grierson from England. They offered no narration, no talking head interviews, no non-diegetic music – just the subjects in their environment reacting, mostly to each other and occasionally to the camera. Even so, the biggest shift in documentary film wasn’t the cultural upheaval of the 1960’s, but the technological advances of that decade, as smaller cameras and portable sound equipment made it possible for increased access and on-the-spot reporting.
Hearts and Minds director Peter Davis talked about how his film is like news reporting without an on-air correspondent “telling you what to think”. The director – through the clever interplay of his war footage, other people’s footage, stock footage, new and old sitdown interviews, new and old on-the-scene interviews, movie clips, and so on – becomes the correspondent, showing you what to think. Thus, in comparison to the aesthetically austere Salesman, Hearts and Minds is more uniquely cinematic and uniquely American (i.e., dazzling and pushy). It uses all aspects of our culture, and many of the Vietnamese culture, to paint a big, messy, complicated picture of the Vietnam War.
Sherman’s March takes the “personal” vision of Hearts and Minds to its extreme, to the point that the movie is ultimately a commentary on itself. Initially setting out to make a documentary tracing General Sherman’s destructive path through Georgia, unlucky-in-love single Ross McElwee is repeatedly waylaid when he develops a sad-sack crush on every pretty woman he meets. The shy McElwee is encouraged by his family to use his camera to meet women, and he does – both to flirt with them and to keep them at a distance. He seems to have a special knack for crushing on isolationists, egomaniacs, religious nuts, and other assorted kooks – the women are all unattainable, which allows McElwee to withdraw from intimacy.
It’s a very personally revealing film, and also an amusing, intelligent meditation on romantic anxiety under the shadow of the nuclear bomb. By seemingly leaving his camera on at all times, McElwee captures a fantastic cross-section of rustic Southern flakes – the apocalyptic survivalist gun nut who claims they’re living “like Little House on the Prairie”; the matchmaker who pushes him into marriage with a woman he’s never met, but fails to mention the woman is a devout Mormon who wants a husband to “bring the priesthood into her home”; the flirty actress who dreams of movie stardom and curing cancer, never acknowledging that she might be living in mutually exclusive fantasias; the woman who feels that slavery should be a choice (“If you wanna be a slave, be a slave…”); and the island-dwelling woman who tells him that “the two most important things in life are linguistics and sex”.
McElwee is only seen on camera a handful of times, so the film is essentially seen through his eyes. But Sherman’s March is a wonderfully self-effacing movie, and quite lacerating in its depiction of the ways McElwee uses the camera – and by extension, the film – as a crutch and a shield. It’s long at over 2 ½ hours, but never boring, with a wonderfully droll tone that set the template for McElwee’s entire career.