Diaries and Mirrors

It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film, like some primitive organism that somehow nourishes itself by devouring itself, growing as it diminishes. … It’s a little like looking into a mirror and trying to see what you look like when you’re not really looking at your own reflection. –Ross McElwee

The confusion between field report and self-portrait; the confusion between fiction and nonfiction; the author-narrators’ use of themselves, as personae, as representatives of feeling states; the antilinearity; the simultaneous bypassing and stalking of artifice-making machinery; the absolute seriousness, phrased as comedy; the violent torque of their beautifully idiosyncratic voices. –David Shields, Reality Hunger

The line between field report and self-portrait is constantly stepped over again and again in Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. McElwee’s life experiences becomes the audience’s entertainment, his own thoughts narrating the story for us. One would expect a documentary that strives for objectivity and reporting accurate facts at first glance of the title Sherman’s March. But McElwee surprises his audience by making the documentary almost a personal diary, by openly sharing his struggles, his parents’ expectations and the pressure they put on him, and his feelings towards the women he sees along his journey.

And yet Ross describes the experience similar to “looking into a mirror and trying to see what you look like when you’re not really looking at your own reflection”. Although he turns the camera on himself during the whole movie, he becomes alienated with himself. Filming self becomes more haunting than filming others, because one suddenly becomes the audience of himself too. And suddenly, the idea of self becomes uncanny.

It’s a unique experience watching McElwee create what he does not expect to create. How often do we create something totally different from what we intended? I know that’s happened to me a couple of times. When I write down my thoughts, I’m still in the process of processing my own thoughts, so as I write I’m still discovering new ideas that I didn’t know I had in my mind. I wonder whether this is the same with McElwee’s filming experience, whether he felt as if he were “looking into a mirror and trying to see what [he looked] like when [he wasn’t] really looking at [his] own reflection” because he saw so many things he did not recognize. “It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film” indicates how McElwee’s filming shaped his life while simultaneously his life was shaping the film. Is he the potter or the clay? This blur between self and the object of the filmmaking seems to be what makes McElwee’s movie so intriguing.


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