Before discussing the actual film, I’d like to share with you my expectations of it. Hearing a title like Sherman’s March, most people would surely expect a historical documentary (this can hardly be disputed as intentional by the director). But I first heard of the movie last semester in a class with none other than Steve himself, who brought it up with the following description (paraphrased due to the fallacy of memory):
“…he spends the whole movie chasing and flirting with girls and talks about Sherman for maybe ten minutes,” he said through a bout of laughter.
So, when I walked into this movie my expectation was of a frat boy with a go pro working on an alternative to the standard essay, introducing each scene with variations of “and here is a beach where Sherman went fishing once, now would you look at the legs on her? Let’s go see what she’s up to!” Obviously, the reality of the movie is far less annoying and possesses much more staying power in my mind. For lack of a better word, it was just sad.
In filming Sherman’s March, Ross is writing an essay of his own life. Ross’ fascination with Sherman is not only because of the soldier’s status of hated villain in the south and shameful reject in the north. It is because of his own role as, in Ross’ words, “a tragic hero.” A man who did everything he could to fulfill his duties and was made into one of the greatest antagonists of American history. And I think Ross’ fascination with that aspect of Sherman’s life is because he relates to that feeling of failure; he sees his own vivid self-portrait in the soldier’s history. On one of the rare occasions that Ross sits down and gives us a historical info dump (drunk and deciding whether to stay with his new temporary lover or continue on his march) he tells us that Sherman suffered from depression, from suicidal thoughts; that he was far from a perfect man. Ross later admits himself that he is wracked with anxiety, suffers from depression himself and while he doesn’t admit to suicidal thoughts one can’t help but wonder just how deep into despair Ross truly is. He does, in fact, draw a parallel between himself and Sherman by comparing their red beards and the fact that their lives are both filled with failures.
It is clear that Ross doesn’t undertake Sherman’s March with the intention of teaching us any more about Sherman than he absolutely has to. As far as I can tell, he took the march because he is so desperately lonely and found that the only life he felt he could have was through making the movie; everything alternative was too disappointing. He has nothing but bad luck with women, and on the rare occasion he does begin to connect with another person some dynamic of the relationship changes and he is left on his own again. Notice that he resumes the march only after a failed fling (a possible exemption from this rule was with the woman whom he did not have a chance to say good-bye to. Ross never elaborated on why he continued on the march instead of staying with her, but I would attribute that to an untold change in the dynamic or her just not being right for Ross. When he’s home, Ross is harassed by all of his family members: Why doesn’t he have a girlfriend? When is he going to get cleaned up? Why is he still filming this? Finding no solace within his family and unable to hold onto a suitable woman, Ross finds the only connection he can make with another human being is to William Sherman, and so goes on a pilgrimage to get as close to the tragic hero as he could in order to find himself.
Ross is not like Capote, taking in every detail like a camera lens (even though he is, ironically, using a literal camera lens). He is not like Thompson or Wolfe, telling an extravagant story with even more extravagant details. He’s not even like Didion, writing a story to send a message to her readers. But in the end, he’s like all of them. A narrator whose story to tell depends on a subversion of the genre; not gonzo journalism or a real-crime novel but a documentary of the self to be put on display. He is a living, breathing, walking essay and one whose message is far from uplifting.