Monday, September 05, 2011
Burning a path of destruction — through relationships
By Edward Copeland
If moviegoers met Cliff Stern, the documentary filmmaker Woody Allen plays in Crimes and Misdemeanors, when he were younger, he'd been from the South instead of New York and his girlfriend left him for an old boyfriend just as he received a grant to make a movie about Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, the film that resulted might have turned out similar to how real documentarian Ross McElwee's Sherman's March did. Released 25 years ago today, McElwee's one-of-a-kind nonfiction film retains its almost inexplicable hypnotic hold (on me anyway) and proves once again, just as recent films such as Exit Through the Gift Shop and Waltz With Bashir have, how elastic the definition of what qualifies as a documentary can be.
At the film's outset, we hear the stern and serious narration of cinéma vérité pioneer Richard Leacock, who died in March, telling the overall details of Sherman's infamous march to the sea, complete with archival photos and a colorful map that traces the general's route as Leacock's voice informs us that the Union military leader's contingent of 60,000 troops cut a path 60 miles wide and 700 miles long. The documentary looks and sounds as if it's truly going to reflect its title of Sherman's March and though Leacock doesn't appear and isn't identified, if you know that it's his presence launching the film, you're liable to believe the entire movie will concern the Civil War. After all, Leacock's work in documentaries dates back to the 1930s and includes being the cinematographer on the influential 1948 documentary Louisiana Story by Robert J. Flaherty which won the BAFTA for best documentary and somehow earned an Oscar nomination for best original motion picture story. (Flaherty was the man behind the even better-known 1922 silent documentary Nanook of the North.) Leacock's work as a cinematographer on documentaries proved quite eclectic ranging from 1960's Primary, which observed John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey in the hunt for the Democratic delegates in Wisconsin; D.A. Pennebaker's 1968 concert documentary Monterey Pop where Jimi Hendrix set that guitar on fire; Pennebaker's 1970 Company: Original Cast Recording detailing the work that went into putting Stephen Sondheim's Broadway classic on wax; and even a 1999 film John Huston War Stories containing interviews with the late director about footage he shot during World War II. Leacock also directed many documentaries as well and though he's not identified and won't return to Sherman's March beyond those opening moments, the eclecticism of his long career supports what I said at the beginning about the flexibility of what constitutes a documentary. Leacock also happened to head the MS program in filmmaking at M.I.T. with Ed Pincus (who co-wrote The Filmmaker's Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for the Digital Age with Steven Ascher) where McElwee received his master's degree.
McElwee picks up the narration after Leacock begins it, effectively beginning the film's transition. He describes how Sherman destroyed Atlanta, Columbia, S.C. and thousands of smaller towns, burning homes, plundering cattle and leaving an unprecedented path of destruction before bringing about a Confederate surrender in North Carolina. As McElwee notes, Sherman's march marked the first time in modern warfare where a campaign had been waged primarily against a civilian population. The director informs us that he first conceived the idea for the documentary about a decade before he actually filmed it, thinking it would be interesting to look at Sherman's lingering influence in the South and on Southerners. He shares the tale of an aunt who keeps in her attic an ancestor's couch which still bears the puncture holes from the swords of Sherman's troops who were searching for hidden loot. When McElwee finally received a grant that would allow him to fund such a documentary, before he returned to his Boston home to prepare, he stopped first in New York to share the good news with the woman that he'd been seeing. Unfortunately for Ross, when he arrived she informed him that she'd reconciled with her ex-boyfriend, knocking McElwee for a loop. He stayed in New York after they argued for awhile, taking refuge in a friend's vacant loft. Eventually, he decides to head south to see his family and begin his film but William Tecumseh Sherman's starring role has been usurped and the Sherman's March's title card makes its appearance followed by a subtitle added to more accurately reflect the documentary's broader scope in terms of subject matter.
During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation
When McElwee arrives in North Carolina, his family talks him into joining them on an outing — one that just happens to include many young, single women. As his relatives keep telling the filmmaker, he "needs a nice Southern girl" to help him get over the breakup. McElwee's mind, which can't get focused on his documentary, isn't really prepared to leap back into the dating pool, saying in voiceover, "The mere thought of trying to meet someone depresses me." It's the beginning of many memorable sequences as McElwee films some sort of event where "various men compete in demonstrations of strength and virility." It leads to the first classic scene of Sherman's March when his newlywed sister takes him out in a canoe (along with a dog) and rails against his ex, saying she could leave her husband anytime she got bored if she wanted to but she doesn't because that would be "bullshit." She does suggest to her brother that he could "tidy up a bit" in terms of appearance if he really wanted to attract someone and suggests that his movie camera could be used as a natural tool of flirtation. "You have an instant rapport with people because you have a camera," she tells him and McElwee wonders if she could be right, despite his past relationship wreckage.
"For a long time I had this notion that love was possible — I mean romantic love, two people falling madly in love with each other and managing to stay together for more than two weeks. But time after time, it seems a woman would get involved with me and want some sort of commitment and I would decide it wasn't right or vice versa. No matter how passionate things were in the beginning, there never was an equilibrium and nothing ever seemed to last."
The first woman in the movie to capture McElwee's attention and seriously distract him from his doldrums and his documentary is an aspiring actress named Pat he meets at the North Carolina festivities who invites him to film her doing her cellulite crunches, even though McElwee admits he doesn't know what cellulite is. She projects a sunny optimism and openness that keeps McElwee up the first night after he's met her, wondering how he should have responded when she told him she doesn't wear underwear. "I mean, it's not like saying you're not wearing any socks," he tells the viewer. When Ross does sleep, he confesses that he's having dreams of thermonuclear war again, dreams that date to his childhood when he was a witness to a far-off test of an atomic bomb. When he sees Pat again, she shares with him her idea for a bizarre screenplay that I won't even attempt to summarize. You have to hear it to believe it, but when McElwee tells her that he's worried he'll run out of film if she doesn't sum it up, he isn't joking. Though he's interested in Pat, she does have a boyfriend, albeit one who is out of the picture since he's in a mental institution at the moment. Though he has been abusive her in the past, Pat's convinced that he will find the path to inner peace and they'll reunite some day. At the moment, she's concentrating on acting, specifically getting a part in a Burt Reynolds film since she's heard he's filming in the area. (Reynolds almost gets mentioned in Sherman's March more than General Sherman.) McElwee knows he has a Civil War documentary to make, but instead he hops in the car with Pat and her friend to head to Atlanta because he just can't stop filming her.
With his slow, almost monotone way of speaking, describing Sherman's March to people makes it sound as if it would be a long, excruciating bore. Hell, if McElwee actually had made a 2½-hour documentary about the Civil War general, many would undoubtedly yawn at the prospect of sitting through it. When you tell them Sherman's March concerns a filmmaker not making that movie but instead spending his time chasing new women, being set up on dates or looking up old female friends and trying to force them to love him, potential viewers might be even more resistant to give the film a try. McElwee defies those odds though and while Sherman's March may be a nonfiction film, the same rule applies to it that applies to fictional features: Sometimes cinematic magic happens in the most unlikely of places and the most unusual forms. As McElwee hangs out with Pat as she tries to land bit parts and awaits word from her agent about the possibility of jobs in a Reynolds film or even a Stanley Kubrick project, it's very difficult not to laugh in a sympathetic way as Ross tries to convince Pat that she'd be better off not flying to Hollywood but staying and letting him continue to film her, especially as he describes himself as being in a competition with Kubrick and Reynolds. Pat does pursue her career and McElwee, who has no car of his own, finds himself stranded for a bit. As McElwee lies in his darkened motel room watching reruns of The Love Boat and The Beverly Hillbillies, he comments to the viewer that he finds "being in a crummy motel with two large empty beds even more depressing than in a hotel with one." Fortunately, he talks to his brother who offers him his old sports car if he can get it running (adding that he thinks the car would improve Ross' image). Soon, McElwee has arrived back near his family awaiting the car's repair (though the film doesn't explain exactly how he returned).
Part of the joy of Sherman's March (and I'm not referring to Joy, the singer McElwee briefly becomes a groupie for before she decides to head to New York to really pursue a music career) is that this truly is a film, albeit a documentary film, that a viewer can't predict where it's going or where it will end. McElwee really lucked out that so many entertaining and insightful anecdotes crossed his path during filming. After making Sherman's March, it changed the course of McElwee's career to where all the documentaries that he has made since have been autobiographical ones such as Time Indefinite and Bright Leaves. In an interview on the DVD, McElwee says he started making these types of films "because I decided I didn't have the ability to be the invisible man behind the camera." A quote on McElwee's website credited to The Museum of Modern Art sums him up very well:
"For the past 25 years, Ross McElwee has given new meaning and flair to first-person nonfiction cinema. Always wise and irreverent, ever the unreliable narrator, McElwee makes the grandest themes of human comedy his artistic province: love and death, chance and fate, memory and denial, the marvelous and the appalling."
What's ironic about Sherman's March as a documentary is that McElwee's original germ of an idea — painting a portrait of the South and Southerners today (or the early 1980s since that's when it was filmed) — does get accomplished, albeit William Tecumseh Sherman has next to nothing to do with it. There are exceptions. Occasionally, he's warned not to bring up the general's name and when his family tries to hook him up with a single mom named Claudia, they do go to a costume party where most wear Confederate garb and her friend Lydia makes one of the most mind-boggling statements you're ever likely to hear. Telling Ross that she still "gets turned on" by the Civil War, Lydia declares, "I know it's been a hundred years, and I still don't think we were wrong. Only in that slavery should not be enforced. It should be a right. If you want to be a slave, be a slave. If you don't, fine." Yes, I imagine there would be a long line of African Americans lining up to become slaves if the opportunity presented itself because their slave ancestors all were volunteers. It reminds me of the series in the late lamented Spy magazine called "Admit It! It Sucks!" Part III: The Civil War by Joe Queenan which had the punchline that the only good thing to come out of the Civil War was the joke "Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?" No wonder so many people and politicians today are criminally uninformed about history. I wonder if Lydia and Michelle Bachmann are related.
His time with Claudia also introduces him to a group of survivalists who only agree to appear as long as the location of their settlement and their names are kept secret and their words sound eerily similar to rhetoric you hear now where in one breath they'll expound how the U.S. is the "greatest country in the world" and in the next, after loading his mouth up with a big chunk of chewing tobacco, one will declare that the U.S. government is his "mortal enemy" and it better watch out if it tries to mess with their group. As for what they're building out in the woods, one of the men explains, "What we are basically involved in is isolationism, survival, and going back, if you will, to the movie Little House on the Prairie, where the family is the dominant factor in our lives." Yes, they can't distinguish a TV show from a movie. The men regret that they do have to make their own liquor and women are scarce. Dating the time period of Sherman's March, they also are fervently "anti-Commie" and believe the U.S. doesn't have enough nuclear weapons — and this is after Reagan took office. (Judging from some markers in the movie even though it didn't come out until 1986, I'm guessing filming was around 1981 or 1982.)
Writing an adequate tribute to Sherman's March vexes me because I'm not sure where to draw the line between giving away too many of the film's numerous great moments and risk making the experience of watching the film less enjoyable should this convince anyone to seek McElwee's movie out. On the other hand, I fear that if I don't include enough of the highlights, I won't be successful at selling Sherman's March to potential new viewers either. It's easy to pick out the women that I don't have to go into detail about such as Jackie, Karen or Joy. I think what little I've mentioned about Burt Reynolds leaves enough of an implication that the actor almost becomes a recurring character. It's worth mentioning the odd little incidents such as when McElwee's car breaks down in a small town in the middle of the night and there's no other lodging available so he has to spend it in a jail cell. Of course, I won't give away the film's ending which works as a punchline of sorts, but there are two women who must be discussed, one who becomes a possible romantic interest, the other an old friend and former teacher who really is the film's breakout character.
He meets Winnie when he gets permission to visit Ossabaw Island, a barrier island off the coast of Savannah, Ga., which at the time was closed to the public and inhabited by very few people who were doing some sort of research. He only meets two: Michael, a geologist, and Winnie, a linguist working on her doctorate. Ross assumes they are a couple until he learns that they live on opposite ends of the estuary. A relationship develops between Ross and Winnie, who doesn't mind talking about things while he films her nude sunbathing. McElwee tries to convince her of parallels between himself and Sherman saying they both have red beards and both are failures of a sort: Sherman in businesses such as real estate, Ross in real estate. "There's no analogy between the real estate business and love affairs," Winnie tells him. She's completely self-sufficient on the island which you can only travel back and forth from on a ferry. Winnie gets her milk from a cow. While she milks the animal one time, she utters one of the film's most memorable lines, "The only important things in life are linguistics and sex." She does admit having a fondness for the cow as well though. In a way, whatever relationship exists between Winnie and Ross does recall that statement from The Museum of Modern Art about McElwee being an unreliable narrator: We never hear or see anything that indicates romance or affection between the linguist and the filmmaker. Unfortunately, McElwee has run out of cash so he has to fly back to Boston to take a film editing job. He tells Winnie that he'll only be gone two months and promises to return.
Ross and Winnie write to each other during his absence but the job ends up lasting longer than he expected. When McElwee finally sends her a letter that says he has finished and will be back soon, he receives a reply from Winnie telling him that things will have to be different once he's back. He can guess that this doesn't foreshadow something positive. Upon his arrival on the island, Winnie informs him that she and Michael now live together. McElwee asks what happened. "Michael was here, Ross, and you'd moved on, filming," Winnie admits. For awhile, Ross tries to stay on the island anyway but eventually it gets to be too much and he knows he can't handle being the third wheel in a buggy atmosphere when he has a long-delayed film to make. What brought him to the island in the first place was that it had served as a staging area for Sherman's troops at one point. "I didn't handle things very well with Winnie," McElwee confesses in voiceover. "By leaving her for so long, I sabotaged myself. If I really wanted things to work out, I would have found some way to come back sooner." Once he's off the island, he also acknowledges "a creeping psychosexual despair" had entered his mind.
Then comes Charleen. A longtime friend and former teacher of McElwee's, we first meet her playing a scratch-off lottery ticket in a Charleston, S.C., McDonald's, haranguing Ross about the state of his love life. "It is boring for you to be middle-aged and lonely," she tells him. She wants to set him up with a woman she knows named Dede who is a singer and a musician. Charleen also advises him on the best way to land a mate. "Now the only way to get you coupled…and it can be a permanent thing…is to find you a woman who thinks that you're God. It's gonna take a special kind of woman to think you're God," she advises. Charleen even visits some Civil War sites with McElwee, though she finds it boring and depressing. "You see how foolish it all is. You see what the Army comes to. The bunkers, the island, the burned-out house. Hell, it's all a tragedy. It's just a matter of how you get through it." Unlike McElwee's sister who views the camera as a plus to get women to talk to him, Charleen always advises him to put it down or turn it off. "Forget the fucking film," she tells him at one point. At another, she adds, "This is not art, this is life." Charleen even offers to send Ross to dental school if he'd give up this filmmaking thing. With a character as flamboyant and scene-stealing as Charleen, any woman she sets Ross up with is sure to be a letdown, but the scene where Dede sings "Just the Way You Are" to a group of very young, bored and dumbfounded students at an all-girls school does prove priceless and the payoff of the Ross-Dede date and Charleen's reaction turns out hysterical as well. After this encounter, McElwee wisely decides to get out of Charleston before Charleen can inflict any more damage, but you'll have to see the movie to find out what that means.
As McElwee visits a Confederate gravesite, his thoughts turn very inward. "It seems like I'm filming my life to have a life to film, like some sort of primitive organism that nourishes itself by somehow devouring itself, growing as it diminishes," his narration says as he looks at the markers. "I ponder the possibility that Charleen is right that filming has become the only way I can relate to women," McElwee continues. "I'm beginning to lose touch with where I really am in all of this. It's a little like looking into a mirror to see what you look like when you're not really looking at your own reflection." In a way, by accident, when Ross McElwee's girlfriend dumped him, changing the direction of both Sherman's March and McElwee's filmmaking career, McElwee evolved into the real David Holzman, the made-up filmmaker in Jim McBride's landmark 1967 mockumentary David Holzman's Diary except that McElwee isn't a parody and his sincerity ultimately powers the film's humor and success. If you like documentaries or, more importantly, unique, one-of-a-kind films, see Sherman's March which, after 25 years and multiple viewings, continues to fill me with awe, amusement and wonder every time I see it. Each time I ask myself, "How can this film possibly captivate me for 2½ hours?" I'm never certain I've settled on the correct answer to that question. I just know that Sherman's March does.