Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K
CC2K newcomer Pat King explores the life of documentarian Ross McElwee through the prism of his film, Sherman’s March.
I have a feeling that at one time, Ross McElwee was only able to find a home in his artwork. Let me explain:
It was 2004. I’m not exactly sure when. Winter time? I was twenty-three at the time and for some reason I had gotten it into my head that I might make a good documentary filmmaker. But I hadn’t watched too many documentaries. So it was time to do some research.
I quickly discovered that I enjoyed the works of the Direct Cinema movement. Salesman by the Maysles brothers, Don’t Look Back by D.A. Pennebaker. Stuff like that. Couldn’t get enough of it. But there just weren’t a ton of films available. So eventually I ended up searching for something that might be kind of similar. What I found was Ross McElwee’s personal essay film, Sherman’s March. On the cover was a caricature of General Sherman, staring in both confusion and awe at a row of elegantly dressed women below him. The picture alone let you know that this wasn’t going to be a straight historical documentary. No, this was going to be something very different.
The movie was incredible, an awakening. It was one of those finger-twitching moments where art and life become almost indistinguishable.
McElwee is a graduate of Brown University and MIT. At the beginning of Sherman’s March, he’s living in Boston. He hasn’t lived in the South since college, though he has made plenty of trips down to his hometown of Charlotte, where he made his earlier films, Charleen and Backyard. So the question becomes, where is McElwee’s home? The place that he’s chosen to live, or the place where he has roots?
As the film opens, McElwee explains that he’s recently gotten a grant to do a documentary on the life of General Sherman. He’s also just been dumped by his girlfriend after visiting her in New York City. With this breakup on his mind, he decides to make a different kind of film. General Sherman’s life will feature in the movie, but it will move to somewhere in the background. McElwee’s trip will take him south, to his ancestral home of South Carolina, following, more or less, the path that Sherman’s army took during the Civil War.
A pattern is quickly established: McElwee falls for a woman, they have a good time together (he’s a very amiable, soft-spoken chap who seems capable of getting along with anyone) but eventually their relationship disintegrates. He falls first for Pat. She’s beautiful, charming, flaky. She’s a little younger than Ross, full of energy and naiveté. Her dream is to become an actress. She’s a stunning blonde who seems to be a little out of Ross’s league, but she seems genuinely interested in him. Her parents like him too, for what that’s worth. McElwee is content to just sit back and film her talking and doing her exercises (he especially enjoys watching her do squats.) But she’s eventually offered a part as an extra in a Stanley Kubrick film and she thinks that this might lead to bigger parts. It might be her “big break.” Ross is dumbfounded. He wonders why she would take a bit part in a Hollywood film when she was already starring in his.
Other women follow. One is a fundamentalist Christian who is a member of a right-wing survivalist group. Another is a Mormon whose house is filled with canned goods and water, in case of a nuclear attack (actually, nuclear war is a major theme in Sherman’s March, which was shot in the early 80’s. Ross has nightmares of nuclear destruction and describes them to us in voice-over illustrated by the image of the moon.) Still another romantic hopeful is an academic who seems almost incapable of talking about anything other than linguistics, sex and farming.
The dissolution of so many relationships throughout the film, provides the first provisional answer to the “home” question. The obvious symbolic rejection of so many Southern women representing a profound alienation from a place McElwee obviously loves. The story of General Sherman, which Ross continues to discuss in narration and with people he interacts with, provides more answers.
Throughout the film McElwee is emphatic that General Sherman loved the South. He ran around in prominent Old South social circles while he was stationed in Georgia. But he was a native Ohioan and so, when it came time to choose sides, there was no question that he would serve the Union. At a fairly early point in the film, during the time that he’s dating the right-wing survivalist, McElwee gets home from a costume party (where he came dressed as a Confederate soldier) and sets up his camera. He sits in shadows and talks in whispers (so as not to wake his father, who already thinks him weird enough.) He begins an extended soliloquy, totally improvised. He talks a little bit about Sherman’s life. “You have the irony of this man who spent four years in Charleston, South Carolina, and called those years the best years of his life,” McElwee says, a fresh glass of bourbon in his hand. When, of course, what Sherman is really known for is his scorched-earth march which left great parts of the South in total ruin. Sherman is one of the most reviled historical characters in the South, and perhaps for good reason. What is less known is something that McElwee makes sure to mention: that he was considered incompetent and even accused of being a traitor when he returned north.
Of course, this is also McElwee’s story too, told symbolically. There are no actual horrors associated with Ross’s trip down South, but there are no actual victories either. He’s stuck between two places, and in neither of them can he retain any footing.
And so it seems like the question of where exactly “home” is for McElwee will be left unresolved. But only if we take the limited view that a home is a physical place. This is more than home being the place where you hang your hat or even a state of mind. This is ultimately about the nature of art and the almost inherit alienation and isolation of the artist.
“This isn’t art, this is life!” McElwee’s friend Charleen says, in exasperation, after she’s unable to convince him to put down his camera while she introduces him to a woman she’s trying to fix him up with. McElwee finally concedes, only half-convincingly, that he might have a sort of “reverse camera shyness.” Of course, the movie is the most important thing. I had a professor tell me once that if you really wanted to be a writer, the only way to be any good was to put it absolutely first, above everything, including family and God. And my professor was a good Southern Baptist. McElwee’s priorities do shift after Sherman’s March, when he gets married and has a kid, but as we see him struggling to both talk to his date and argue with Charleen, all the while refusing to put his camera down, we realize immediately that the film is the thing, the first thing and last thing; the only thing.