Monday, October 18, 2010

The Long And Winding Road

Sherman's March: A Meditation On The Possibility Of Romantic Love In The South During An Era Of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation(1986)
Directed By Ross McElwee
"Sherman's March"(as it is called for short) is a brilliant documentary which begins with young documentary filmmaker named Ross Mcelwee ostensibly tracing General William Tecumseh Sherman's swath of destruction across the south that won the civil war for the North, after just going through a traumatic break-up.
What it ends up being is a video journal(shot on film) of McElwee getting hooked up (by his sister or mother who want him to marry) or trying to hook up with a variety of southern ladies, from an aspiring model to scientist living in a small island in a lake by herself. Watching "Sherman's March" is like discovering a great novel for the first time. Though it's relatively obscure, the American Library of Congress was right to include this among their important historical works. "Sherman's March" is complex, awkward, sad, sweet, and very funny, so rich in character and charming in it's sincerity it feels less like a movie and more like story told by a particularly vivid friend (even the stills Ive collected here look more like photos from someone's private album).It's every bit as personal as the achingly intimate "Crumb" and as politically complex as Micheal Moore, minus the soap box and fact meshing. The lines between personal, political, fiction, documentary, history, and present are blurred from the beginning, and this only continues for two hours over the course of which, McElwee's personal scars mirror the blasted landscape Sherman carved, and just as equally the South's selective memory when it come to the war.McElwee says "Sherman really loved the South. It must have been a terrible choice to make to destroy it.", and in doing so continues to echo a southern literary (and otherwise) tradition of ambivalence and nostalgia, concerning it's checkered past, the way many young lover's remain haunted by ex's, unsure or unwilling to admit their complicity in the demise of the thing they loved (or failed to love). At the time the film was made, the Cold War seemed an endless fact of history and the universe, so the threat of nuclear war looms ever in the background of McElwee's conscious. The world(at the time) would never be war-torn again, it simply would no longer exist. If there was another war there would be no time for heroism or romance, the rocket's would have eliminated everything before anyone was aware of what was going on.
With the end of the world, always present love, affection, and companionship are far more seductive and enticing than recording a path of destruction (and interviewing reluctant southerner's who'd rather not talk about "that horrible man").
While Ross stays with a reclusive scientist on her own private island in a lake it feels as if a kind of paradise has been found, a retreat from the world of intrusive family members, nuclear paranoia, history, and responsibility in general.
The emotional loses of the relationships that McElwee builds (whether these were real or projected as the cases may be) become battle scars Mcelwee let's us feel, through the personal documentary medium, which though nowa-You-tube-days might seem quaint, was way ahead of its time.
Most significantly unlike many documentaries of this sort then and especially now, McElwee does not coast on cuteness or novelty, but roots his film firmly in capturing the essence of his subjects and reflecting them back into his attempt and failures to construct a narrative, and some sense, at least to his mind, one of histories great contradictions in general Sherman; a man who had to destroy the thing he loved in order to preserve it.
I'm not much interested in "realism" that tries to mimic "real life" which in all it's complexity and detail will ALWAYS elude artists. "Sherman's March" instead wisely allows real life to happen to it, the camera and we by default become a young man with a camera searching for affection and solace, and grappling with history and intellect only to avoid succumbing to emotions and attachments.
Ultimately this kind of realism, accounts for why the film may appear incomplete, as it noticeably does not end on the same foot it begins, but then again few relationships ever do that, and certainly even fewer wars.

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