[Marxism] Sherman's March

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jun 19 10:26:05 MDT 2004


Ross McElwee's 1986 "Sherman's March" is now available in DVD. The 
alternative but unwieldy title is "A Meditation on the Possibility of 
Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons 
Proliferation" conveys the film-makers deeper motivation in making this 
quirky but brilliant documentary. Starting out as a project on General 
William Tecumseh Sherman's bloody march through his native South, the 
film rapidly turns into a meditation on the difficulty of finding love 
under the shadow of the bomb.

The film is structured around a series of encounters between the 
diffident, tall, bearded and bespectacled film-maker and Southern belles 
who friends and family hook him up with on blind dates. He also looks up 
old flames. This becomes his own march through the South with a lot less 
bloodshed but a lot more angst.

When he arrives in Charlotte, North Carolina--his home town--he runs 
into an aspiring actress who pins her hopes on landing a part in a Bert 
Reynolds's movie. She is a complete airhead who divides her time between 
roller-skating and doing squat exercises designed to reduce cellulite. 
In one of the funniest scenes in the film, she recounts the scenario of 
a movie she would write, direct and produce and star in after becoming 
rich and famous. Her character would be a returned astronaut who after 
achieving wealth and power would set up laboratories on a Pacific island 
where lots of "intellectuals" would be subsidized to discover cures for 
cancer and solve the world's problems. It would all be "very tropical" 
with lots of big animals and plants, as she puts it.

With this scene McElwee establishes the millenarian framework for the 
rest of the film, which is consumed with hopes and fears for the future 
in an age of nuclear uncertainty.

He next meets an Atlanta interior decorator whom he escorts to Church 
after a few days of hanging out. After the service, we see the Parson 
patiently explaining to him how the spirit will survive the flesh in the 
Second Coming, which could very well coincide with all-out nuclear war. 
McElwee has a true gift for drawing such people out and allowing them to 
be hoisted on their own petard. Unlike Michael Moore, who never hides 
his own strong opinions, McElwee is content to function more like a good 
psychotherapist who interjects with an occasional "Hmmm, that's 
interesting", while the patient pours out his obsessions.

A couple of days later she introduces him to a group of survivalist men 
in the back woods. They have built houses, stored food and stockpiled 
weapons that will help them survive nuclear war. These tobacco-chewing 
rednecks tell McElwee that the "government" is the source of all their 
troubles. In a perfect example of the kind of "found humor" that is 
pervasive in this film, one of them likens their survivalist project to 
"Little House on the Prairie".

Continuing along the path blazed by Sherman, McElwee next arrives in 
Charlestown where his former high school teacher sets him up with a 
music teacher from a local girl's school. More than any other woman in 
the film, this one is clearly not his type. She is a Mormon who expects 
that her husband will "bring the Priesthood" into their marriage. She 
too is a survivalist and gives McElwee a tour of their sub-basement, 
which is replete with canned goods, water and other necessities for 
surviving nuclear war. Like the Parson in the previous scene, she too 
makes an amalgam between a nuclear war that seemed to be looming during 
the Reagan presidency and theology.

Fears about nuclear war and frustrations in meeting the right woman 
haunt McElwee. As he lies in bed in a third-rate motel room at 3am in 
the morning, he recalls being in Hawaii as a teenager with his parents. 
While there, they go to the beach late one night to view the sky after 
the largest hydrogen bomb in history is detonated at an atoll 800 miles 
away. He describes Honolulu becoming as bright as day a moment or two 
after the bomb goes off. And then the sky turns a lime green. This 
vision has haunted him his entire life.

Although Ross McElwee is not a prolific film-maker, everything he makes 
combines stunning existential insights with sharp political commentary. 
His most recent film made in 2003 and titled "Bright Leaves" is a 
Michael Moore type assault on the tobacco industry that was widely 
acclaimed but I haven't seen. The only other McElwee film I have seen is 
the 1993 made-for-TV documentary titled "Time Indefinite", which is a 
meditation on raising a family, growing old and mortality. It is very 
much in the vein of Spalding Gray's performances.

If "Sherman's March" is not available in your local video store, you can 
order it from http://www.firstrunfeatures.com. I give it my highest 
recommendation.


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