Sherman’s March / Ross McElwee / 1986 / fivestar

Active Ingredients: Self-deprecating humor; Honesty; Fascinating form
Side Effects: Slightly too long

More of a personal essay than a standard documentary, Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March is a unique film, but its pleasures are much simpler than dry formal experimentation. It’s a film about love, heartbreak and lethargy—and, yes, Sherman’s March—but it’s also discernibly a comedy. The film opens with a map graphic and a brief overview of the Civil War general’s destructive path through the south, quickly followed by a long shot of the director, recently dumped, pacing around his apartment. You see, McElwee set out to document the lingering effects of Sherman’s March on south society, but he doesn’t get much further than five minutes into the film. From then on it becomes about the depressed director’s struggle to find love and a direction in life. He halfheartedly follows Sherman’s trail, but he’s more interested in the women he encounters than the monuments he visits. Over the course of the film, a bevy of southern women flit in and out of his life, some quirky, some crazy, all of them interesting.

This may sound like some rather pathetic material to slog through, but it works thanks to McElwee’s candidness, dry sense of humor and understanding of just how ridiculous he seems to other people. Through self-administered confessionals and voiceovers we get to know McElwee as a shy, sensitive sadsack. He’s earnest and pensive and resolved to continue filming, despite his family’s grousing that he’ll never meet a girl if he doesn’t put down his camera. In one funny scene, McElwee speaks to the camera, drunk and dressed as a confederate general, having just returned from a costume party. In a whisper (he doesn’t want to wake up his parents, with whom he’s been living), he gives a surprisingly lucid analysis of Sherman’s character and draws comparisons to his own situation.

The film neatly walks a tightrope, eliciting sympathy for McElwee’s character while simultaneously encouraging the audience to laugh at him. Ultimately, McElwee may have failed to make a straight documentary about Sherman’s March, but he’s documented his own strange odyssey, leaving a trail of humor and pathos in his wake.