Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sherman's March (McElwee. 1986)

"It seems I'm filming my life in order to have a life to film."


Remember the idea of “direct cinema” that was introduced in my review of Frederick Wiseman's High School? Well, it is back with a slightly different spin with Ross McElwee’s Sherman's March: A Mediation to the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. A fly on the wall documentary, this is one of the most unique and interesting character studies that I have ever seen. Before going into the review I would like to also mention that this was one of the longer documentaries I have ever seen – almost to the point of ruining the production’s entertainment value.

Ross McElwee is an ingenious, but socially awkward, filmmaker who starts out (hence the name) with the intentions of making a documentary on the lingering affects of William Sherman’s destruction of the American South. Before he can begin production, he is dumped by his girlfriend. This sends him into a whirl of depression that dominates almost every aspect of the ensuing project.

At first, we simply see McElwee as a whiny, self-loathing documentarian with whom we will struggle to relate. But it does not take the viewer long to find common ground with our film’s “hero.” He is lost, afraid, lonely and getting older. Rather than continuing on with his Sherman project, he uses his camera to document his trying for a serious relationship. He even uses the camera to meet girls. As creepy as it sounds, his idea actually works quite quickly. His first fling (with Patricia) is the most interesting.

Seen above doing some variation of a cellulite exercise, Patricia is an aspiring actress who meets Ross at a gathering. The audience is confused by Patricia almost instantly. She has a thick Scarlett southern accent, but lacks the O’Hara personality to match. She is beautiful, sure, but her ideas on almost any topic can only be considered out of this world. This is a perfect example of what makes Sherman’s March and direct cinema so fantastic. A character like Patricia is only insane enough for real life. She is like that embarrassing cousin that ruins your home movies.

After Patricia leaves Ross in order to pursue a role in an upcoming Burt Reynolds film, the audience is left without anything to quench our thirst for insanity. By this point in the film, nobody is hoping for Ross McElwee to succeed; his failure is what makes the documentary watchable. This is a film for a fan of awkward giggling. The stupid, outlandish, uncomfortable and completely natural things said by the filmmaker’s ragtag family are never hilarious – but almost always funny. On the other hand, there is nothing funny about poor Ross McElwee. He is filming his own life, in a direct cinema style, doing nothing but showcasing his inability to have a meaningful relationship with a woman.

Though this is a very funny and entertaining film (in terms of documentary), Sherman’s March is almost too long for its own good. The premise and practice of the film is interesting on its own, but only in very small doses. McElwee’s voice becomes almost unbearable after the first two hours of the film have passed. Luckily, the final few scenes are heroically thought provoking enough to rescue the film from falling off the watchable table.

At two hours and forty minutes long, Sherman’s March is a test of a movie fan’s dedication to art. Imagine what it would be like to watch almost three hours of someone else’s home movies or personal video diaries. That is what it is like to watch McElwee fail over and over again. Though there are some very funny aspects to each character, the runtime is enough to keep this film from being great. It runs dry after about an hour. Sherman’s March is much better than I expected, but I still much prefer the direct cinema work of Frederick Wiseman.

Sherman's March: B-

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