“This is not art, this is life!” Sherman’s March (Ross McElwee, 1986)

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The film society I attend every Monday has been screening a minor retrospective of the films of Ross McElwee over the past few weeks. First, we saw the hilarious Charleen, McElwee’s ode to his irrepressible poetry teacher. Next, the simple, yet extraordinarily layered Backyard, which is both a wonderful portrait of McElwee’s southern life and a complex parable on race relations. This week, we saw a film that absolutely cemented my belief that Ross McElwee is extraordinary. Sherman’s March might just be the best documentary film I have ever seen.

Originally setting out to make a documentary about General Sherman’s march through the south during the American Civil War, McElwee becomes at a loss when his girlfriend breaks up with him. Unsure whether to continue with the documentary he decides to continue filming his life during this period eventually following Sherman’s trail, encountering a number of women a long the way. Narrating the film McElwee ponders his own life, his search for a companion, his dreams of nuclear apocalypse and a strange kinship with Sherman himself. Oh yeah, and Burt Reynolds becomes his nemesis. 

Trying to explain what McElwee does is like trying to explain how he does it: impossible. Only Ross McElwee could set out to make a film about Sherman’s march and end up making a film about his relationships with a series of increasingly strange women. Equally entertaining are sub-plots involving Burt Reynolds (and his look-a-like) and nuclear apocalypse. With the camera constantly attached to his shoulder McElwee documents a crucial time in his life, narrating it as he goes along. The outcome is astonishing, perhaps the only film I’ve ever seen that made me feel like I really knew the filmmaker.

McElwee’s remarkable talent is in making his subjects completely unselfconscious in front of the camera. How he does this is a mystery, but the results are staggering. The people that know Ross know he comes with the camera, and everyone he meets on the way only know the Ross McElwee behind the camera. But it is almost wrong to say that McElwee is behind the camera, in many ways it is quite simply an extension of himself. We are simultaneously aware of it, and conscious of how it is a part of Ross. At one point Charleen (who makes a welcome reappearance) tells Ross to turn off his camera during a date, aptly telling him “This is not art, this is life!”

Of course eventually McElwee arrives at a point where he is unsure about the separation between his life and his art. When he does reach this conclusion it is poignant and beautifully handled. McElwee’s films are stunningly objective considering they are literally subjective. McElwee never judges, he just shows people as they are, with all their complexities (this includes himself). I know I have made some very strong praise of this film but it really needs to be seen. At two and a half hours it is long, and some may not take to its form, but Ross is too hard to deny. Sherman’s March makes you feel like he is talking to you, and what you are watching is a privileged glimpse at his life. I can’t wait for the follow up Time Indefinite.

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