On the Rebound? Sherman’s March (1986) Is the Movie for You!

SHERMAN'S MARCH (1985)

To view Sherman’s March click here.

As a film studies professor, I recognize Sherman’s March (1986) by Ross McElwee as an example of a performative documentary. In this type of doc, the filmmaker appears onscreen, stages interviews with his or her subjects, and intervenes directly in events. The film becomes as much about the filmmaker as it does about the subject. Though made famous by Michael Moore in such films as Roger and Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002), this type of doc actually precedes Moore’s work. Michael Rubbo’s Waiting for Fidel (1974) follows Rubbo and a group of Canadians who had made arrangements to meet and speak with Fidel Castro in Cuba. Rubbo intended to make a documentary about their meeting. Every day, the party waited for Castro; every day, their meeting was postponed. With little else to do, Rubbo decided to shoot footage of his party visiting sites in Cuba. They never did meet Castro, hence the title Waiting for Fidel.

Performative documentaries are never objective, and they are not about dispensing information. Viewer response to a performative documentary will likely depend on tolerance of the filmmaker’s personality as well as an interest in the subject matter. The value of this type of doc is that it is a snapshot of our society at a given moment in time filtered through a personal lens. It can be a personal response to an important issue of the day, or a collection of details of everyday life.

But that’s the film studies professor in me. Sherman’s March is about a man on the rebound looking for a new relationship so he doesn’t feel so awful. The first time I saw Sherman’s March was after a bad break-up. I found myself relating to the film even though McElwee’s presence was annoying at times. Like anyone who second guesses themselves after an unexpected break-up, McElwee was in need of a new relationship—which I knew from experience would not satisfy him. But, I understood the impulse.

McElwee had intended to make a documentary about the long-term effects of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastating campaign across Georgia and the Carolinas during the Civil War. McElwee had received a $9,000 grant to finance the film, and he was in possession of a camera and sound equipment when he stopped in New York to see his girlfriend. It was at that point that she broke up with him, leaving the filmmaker with that lost, lonely, and wicked feeling familiar to those who have been there.

SHERMAN'S MARCH (1985)

Though McElwee more or less travels the same route as General Sherman, the film contains little Civil War history. It consists of McElwee rebounding his way through Atlanta, Savannah and Columbia, South Carolina. His efforts to establish a lasting connection or a relationship with various women is the subject of the film. He refers to Sherman’s March as “a meditation on the possibility of romantic love in the South today.” The footage and the informal nature of the narration give the doc the look and feel of a home movie, but there is structure to the narrative and rhythm to the editing that makes it interesting to watch, even strangely compelling at times. Home movies never have structure and rhythm, as anyone who has ever sat through someone’s wedding video can attest.

During his romantic sojourn, McElwee is smitten with a spirited, almost ditzy actress whose ambition is to meet Burt Reynolds. At the time, Reynolds was Hollywood’s top box-office attraction, according to the Quigley Publications poll of exhibitors, so her goal is not as eccentric as it might seem. Of course, she was more interested in her career than in settling down. In Atlanta, an interior designer introduces McElwee to a group of survivalists who are building bunkers in the mountains. That didn’t work out either. By far, my favorite romantic interlude was when McElwee took up with a linguist named Winni, who was living on an island just off the coast of Savannah. With only one other person on the island, her lifestyle is best described as roughing it, or perpetual camping. I was reminded of the flower children from the 1960s who wanted to get back to the purity of nature to escape the phoniness of modern life. It’s not that I would ever be interested in living that way, even with a romantic partner, it was just fascinating to watch as McElwee acclimated himself to her lifestyle and to her goals. After an idyllic few weeks, he leaves for what he truly believes is a short period of time. Once gone, he finds it difficult to go back to living in such isolation. When he did return some months later, Winni had taken up with the only other person on the island. McElwee stuck around for a short time, but their interactions were painfully awkward. Did he really think she would wait indefinitely?

I was struck at how different each woman was—an extroverted actress, an introverted linguist. There was also a rock singer and a feminist lawyer. Though the feminist already had a partner, that did not stop him from pursuing her. In the middle of a rally to support the Equal Rights Amendment, he tries to talk about their personal relationship. In the film he notes, “With consummate timing, I insist on talking to Karen about our relationship in the midst of 10,000 angry women.” It was at moments like this that I was completely annoyed with McElwee, thinking, “Isn’t that just like a man.”

Watching Sherman’s March again recently, I realized that McElwee’s “meditation on romantic love” is also a time capsule of the styles, trends, political issues and dating rituals of the early 1980s. It almost made me nostalgic for a time when men and women met for the first time in person and lived in their own little worlds—a time before social media, online dating sites, and cell phones determined and controlled relationships.

Susan Doll

7 Responses On the Rebound? Sherman’s March (1986) Is the Movie for You!
Posted By kingrat : April 24, 2017 12:48 am

Susan, I thoroughly enjoyed SHERMAN’S MARCH when it was shown on TCM, and your review brings back fond memories of it. It does indeed feel like a time capsule. McElwee is very much a Southern version of Woody Allen. Yes, I get annoyed with the navel-gazing at times, but that happens with Woody, too.

Posted By Doug : April 24, 2017 8:39 am

When I see a post such as this which details a film made during my lifetime, I think about where I was at the time of the film’s release-in 1986 I was going through the same turbulences as most mid-twenties individuals. A few years earlier I broke up with someone and moved to Missouri. Right after 1986 another breakup and I headed west to Vegas for 7 years. Happily single right now; I can’t afford to move again, what with a mortgage and all.
Susan, the doc style of this film doesn’t quite match another fine documentary I saw recently, but ‘rebound’ (or lack thereof) figures in: “Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould”. Well, well worth seeking out.
Did Ross McElwee ever find sustained love?

Posted By SSWells : April 24, 2017 12:57 pm

What a very timely post. I had just this past week finished reading a book by Roger Ebert; “25 Movies to Mend a Broken Heart: Ebert’s Essentials”. Sherman’s March deserves to be #26 in this list or at least an “Honorable Mention”. But it sort of begs the question, do we ever really find sustained fulfilling love in our life?
But I certainly agree that McElwee had a very poor sense of timing of interrupting Karen at the ERA rally. Aw, but do we men ever really learn?

Posted By George : April 24, 2017 3:14 pm

This should be paired with the faux documentary “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” for a great double bill.

Posted By Susan Doll : April 24, 2017 4:58 pm

Doug: I am not sure if McElwee ever found a new girl, but he went on to make other films.

Like you, I measured what was going on in my own life at the time the film was made. My favorite thing about this movie is that it is like opening a window to 1986 — both historically and personally.

Posted By George : April 24, 2017 9:51 pm

Even a not-great movie can recall one’s “own life at the time the film was made.” Watching LESS THAN ZERO the other night brought memories of 1987 rushing back. Probably because that film is such a relic of its era, typified by Robert Downey Jr.’s haircut.

Posted By Rodney Welch : April 28, 2017 12:53 pm

I taped the film when it was on PBS in the late 1980s, and watched it several times, so I guess it comes as no surprise to hear me say I empathized with McElwee almost the entire way through. He was so awkward and goofy and self-consciously self-effacing that I couldn’t help but relate. I could see myself liking him and I could see why a woman might not return his calls.

I think part of what I loved about the film was that it was a genuinely funny personal documentary about romance. He found the humor in real people without a lot of fancy editing, just kind of let them be themselves.

I loved, too, his deadpan humor, such as when he meets the strict Latter Day Saints young lady in the movie’s final act – a mismatch if there ever was one. I laughed out loud when he confessed to the camera, in all seriousness, “She wants me to `bring the priesthood’ into her home and, uh, that’s just not me…” I laughed even louder when he related this painful series of details to his romantic mentor Charleen Swansea, and she gets that befuddled look and goes “She wants you to…bring the priesthood into her house?” Gosh – makes me giddy thinking about it.

A word about Charleen. As soon as that great Southern ball of fire arrives in the film midway through, it gets a whole new lease on life. Such a great dynamic character who absolutely deserved to be immortalized on celluloid forever. He made an earlier film about her, and it’s no wonder.

Great thoughtful post, Susan, and a terrific gem of a movie.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.