A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 02 February 2006
Source First Run Features DVD
William Tecumseh Sherman died on Valentine’s Day, 1891. In Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee recounts this fact while standing at the base of a Central Park statue of Sherman on horseback, chasing the female figure of Winged Victory. The image is an oddly tender one, revealing the filmmaker’s tenderness and even empathy with the notorious and detested Civil War general whom he means to illuminate as “one of history’s tragic figures.” McElwee’s film finds its maker in a similar state of frozen pursuit as Sherman’s monument, if not actually atop a horse. As he attempts to make film about Sherman’s devastating rampage through the Confederate South, McElwee becomes distracted by more immediate concerns.
At the outset of his documentary project, McElwee’s girlfriend dumps him, leaving him distraught, solipsistic, and decidedly lovelorn. When he returns to his family seat in North Carolina, his anxieties about romance — where to find it, or if it is even possible — immediately displace his original documentary subject as he begins to use his camera to seek out potential girlfriends (and later to interrogate old flames) on a tour of the contemporary South. As McElwee continually returns to and abandons his original documentary, his two subjects marry and come apart in unlikely ways, filtered through McElwee’s anxious, whimsical first-person visual and voiceover narration.
Through McElwee’s camera, the viewer becomes a party to the filmmaker’s own erotic re-reading of the March to the Sea, and indeed, much of the film subtly plays on the camera’s paradoxical uses. It is at once a social facilitator, through which McElwee can initiate interactions with women, and a “hedge” behind which he can hide (“Perhaps I’m camera-shy in reverse,” he explains). In this way, it is both an instrument of eros and an interrogation device, a medium through which McElwee can both pitch his woo and seek reasons for his past and present romantic failures. And in his overall project, the camera becomes both a recorder and a mythologizer of life, until he finds himself “filming [his] own life in order to have a life to film.”
As McElwee persists along his route, his twin concerns — love and Sherman — dovetail in interesting and often preposterous ways. As his successive lady-friends amusedly remind him, the connections he proposes between himself and his historical subject (failure, tragedy, insomnia, a red beard) are circumstantial at best. Similarly, the random digressions McElwee makes into the subject of nuclear war often seems sutured into his film, or even — in the case of his vivid nightmares of nuclear apocalypse — fabricated. But this is not to chastise the film for biting off more cinematic material than it can critically chew; rather it is to indicate the essentially random nature of all forms of documentary filmmaking. Interpretations of nuclear war are offered by a variety of figures in McElwee’s film, and each sees it slightly differently: as a catastrophe to be protested or to run away from, as a great spectacle, or as an inevitable antecedent to Judgment Day that must simply be endured in these Latter Days. Such interpretations are as tenuous as McElwee’s own digressions, and it is the slipperiness of these connections, the ways in which they both illuminate and divert the filmmaker in his quest for understanding, that governs the film’s fluid structure.
It is therefore a characteristic of McElwee’s work as a whole — aided by the confidential, intimate character of his narration — that it openly defies its proposed subjects, and so categorization as a whole. This is particularly true of Sherman’s March, a film that is always unsure of what it is to be about. It is in this sense that McElwee’s films can be said to be essayistic; they are resistant to dogma and singularity of meaning, always seeking connections where perhaps there are none, always gesturing towards a goal (making a historical film, finding true romantic love) that remains out of the filmmaker’s reach. Thus, none of McElwee’s contradictory uses of the camera (as a chick magnet, as a window into his own soul, etc.) achieves a particular dominance — or even much success. McElwee persistently frets over the adverse metaphysical effects of his obsessive, cinematic self-study, and even when he successfully penetrates the worlds and histories of his prospective subjects/mates with his lens, he makes scant progress once there.
Unlike Sherman and his reviled “scorched earth” mode of warfare, McElwee’s chasse romantique is ultimately less effectual and usually ends in a nervous, frustrated goodbye. His project — as both historiography and a form of self-help — is a restless, often self-defeating desire to reclaim or redeem the past (both historical and personal). But as the women in his viewfinder (like the women of the Civil War) demonstrate, the burden of the past is hard to shrug off. Pat’s wild, abusive boyfriend in L.A., the father of Claudia’s rollerskating daughter, Winnie’s amorous linguistics professors, Karen’s erstwhile soul-mate: each is a specter of a past romance haunting the present, a tragic figure in a history of love.