Sherman's March

(Ross McElwee, USA, 1985)


There are two journeys in this film, and they keep cleaving and rejoining.


Private search: solo filmmaker Ross McElwee looks in vain for the “perfect woman”. Public voyage: to retrace the steps of “Sherman’s March” through the American South.


The historical figure of General William Sherman (1820-1891) appeals to McElwee’s expansive sense of private despair: a “tragic figure” who loved the South, but then systematically had to destroy it – and was in turn reviled in the North as a failure.


But the existing traces of, and monuments to, Sherman call up a history of conflicts that keep playing themselves out in the present. Indeed, they keep popping up in the lives of those women this filmmaker so doggedly chases with his camera. “Better to have a political ally than a lover”, one cynical ex tells him; he feigns incomprehension of the notion.


On the “line between documentary and fiction” (a phrase we hear a lot these days), Sherman’s March draws a wonderful and intriguing map. It calls up many films but exactly resembles none of them: it’s a truer True Stories (1986), with more life, less condescension; a dumber and more heartfelt Routine Pleasures (Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1986); a cockier and more reflexive Demon Lover Diary (Joel DeMott, 1980).


It looks lazy as it unfolds but, on reflection, draws in all its elements around a few key dramatic metaphors and ironies. Alongside all the conundrums of the personal and the political, it plays some great cards: the everyday pathos of longing for “the movies” as some ideal realm (McElwee’s personal nemesis grows to be Burt Reynolds, via a fleeting girlfriend and then a deceptive lookalike); the gentle humour of many deadpan incongruities (the woman who milks a cow while holding forth on linguistics and counterpart theory); not to mention the inevitable art/life quandaries met by this hopelessly obsessed cinéma-vérité filmmaker (“My real life had fallen in the crack between myself and my film”).


Sherman’s March gives the documentary genre/format the necessary dose of fictionality it has (conventionally) never wanted; and it gives fiction the documentary looseness and openness it (sometimes) deserves. It also pulls off the not inconsiderable feat of painting a portrait of America that only a fool or a hack reviewer would dare call “Reaganite”.


And it is full of words and voices for which no images are even possible – save for the soft bed of a moon in the sky, a man on a bunk bed, or a lonely public monument.

© Adrian Martin November 1987

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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