Sometimes a film maker will witness an event and then try to capture it on film. McElwee does the opposite, starting with a camera on his shoulder, and from there lives his life through its lens for a few sad months. What a bizarre way to meet women, and what a bizarre way to live your life.
If Didion used her innocuous status as a reporter to drift among counterculture circles in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, McElwee takes this a few leaps further, using his status as documentarian to fall into relationships with women, and sneak into the private lives of his fellow southerners. Initially filming a documentary on the effects of Sherman’s March to the Sea, McElwee uses the idea as a loose structure for the film, moving on to document his disastrous relationships with women. More than that, as the structure of his own life slips away, the film provides the only clear direction for McElwee’s life. McElwee is living his documentary rather than documenting his life.
While Didion remains glued to Haight-Ashbury, hanging in condemned building basements and people watching in the park, Sherman’s March is so deeply participatory and intimate that if it weren’t for the jarring mirror shots where McElwee captures himself filming, you might think you were reliving a memory. We have Ross’ raw experience before us. Pleading for the affection of an old friend, filming moments of budding emotional and physical intimacy, and then seeking closure when that relationship has ended, McElwee is filming the parts of life that we either cherish as a private memory, or wish we could forget entirely.
A scene where a family mechanic discusses the death of his daughter where we learn of the passing of McElwee’s mother. A cocktail lounge singer and her neighbor practice playing music while neighborhood kids gather around to listen. When we have a pause from his love life, McElwee slips unnoticed into the intimate rituals and relationships of southern families and friends.
Here McElwee captures a pervasive sense of doom and materialism creeping into Southern life. Bible thumping preachers tell of the Rapture and the end of man while the frame pans to a pink Easter Bunny. In a similar clash of imagery, a woman compares the arrival of the apocalypse to the birth of a child. Men practice shooting dynamite in their survivalist ranch. Dread oozes in on both sides of the camera. Rougher scenes are punctuated with footage of the moon while McElwee describes his dreams of nuclear holocaust. Even the film’s title warns of death, referring to the path of destruction left by William Sherman during the Civil War, though only when I described the movie to a friend at the bar did he catch that it was also McElwee’s grim metaphor of his love life. McElwee’s voice of Southern neuroses reads like a Woody Allen born below the Mason-Dixon.
And there is the Burt Reynolds theme. McElwee catches the popular excitement when the Southern actor comes into town, or when his name is mentioned. Other scenes in the movie capture the doe-eyed dreams of fame of young Southern women, or an obsession with personal appearance seen through cellulite workouts or butt-tucking surgery.
Between capturing a cultural obsession with death and destruction, and a vacuum of icons and sources of identity filled by Burt Reynolds and Hollywood dreams, we can wonder if McElwee really did drop the original idea for his film at all.