Film Reivew: Sherman's March
I was initially attracted to Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1986) because of my love for the film Gone With the Wind, which I grew up watching with my grandmother. Essentially, Gone With the Wind is the story of the old south. Growing up, I always felt that many things from world portrayed in the 1939 classic still persist today in South Arkansas. In watching Sherman’s March, it became clear that in the women he meets, McElwee also encounters a plethora of remnants from the old south and Sherman’s actual march to the sea.
The film is set in the Carolinas, portraying scenes ranging from the homes and bedrooms of subjects to country clubs, city streets, and lakes. There is no specified main character – some of the women McElwee meets are self-absorbed and conceited, while others seem melancholy. McElwee, too, seems melancholy in his voiceovers and occasional screen appearances, but then I remind myself that he was dumped at the start of filming. He wants to find the woman who is right for him while occasionally referencing something about General Sherman.
McElwee’s free-ranging style used throughout the movie makes it seem both authentic and overwhelmingly random. At times it can be difficult to actually discern his underlying narrative or purpose in making the piece. However, according to Corrigan (2016), essay films may engage viewers in narratives either explicitly or implicitly. It is safe to say McElwee is implicit in his storytelling. Toward the end of the film, I decided he simply wanted us to see people – warts and all.
One of the major themes in the film is women overcoming hardships with their own brand of southern willpower. When one of the subjects, Pat, wants to find work as an actress, encounters issues with her accent, she is not deterred. Ironically, Pat is also abused by her boyfriend – but her female strength does not exactly translate to this situation. While women not wanting to leave their abusive boyfriends may not be a southern only problem, it certainly is a common one in these parts. McElwee is the one wanting to move forward with his life, and it appears that is what he is doing through his extensive interviews with these women. Yet in a sense, he is manipulating them into baring their souls and sharing their vulnerability (and strengths) so he can have fodder for a movie. Nonetheless, the film, which very clearly shows many characters overcoming obstacles, sends the message that all women can be strong and conquer whatever adversity comes their way.
These women and their mid-1980s personas are technically frozen in time by the film. Looking back, I wonder if the women are proud of what they showed the world or are petrified? Back years ago, I can remember what it was like to not be constantly obsessed with the image you show the world. Now, we curate our images to a point of perfection. Corrigan (2016) says “imagistic” value has become more important than the actual message. McElwee’s portrayal of the women at times in which they are strong and at times in which they are exposed is achieved by his use of the imagistic. The woman in the bathing suit is proud and captivating. His post-surgery sister is like the train wreck you can’t look away from. But, their appearance does draw the viewer in to hear their stories.
There are some parts of the movie which feature people who on the surface appear ridiculous; with my experience growing up in the south, I know these people are real. With the backdrop of the rebuilt south, Claudia faces an immense struggle – she has apocalyptic concerns and is pretty convinced the world is going to end sometime in the future. She is even part of what some kind of anti-government survivalist group. Could this be the beginning of the far right as we know it today? This group has a plan in place for surviving the apocalypse and thriving in its aftermath, which sounds both morbid and ridiculous. One woman even asserts slavery should still be allowed, but not enforced. “It should be a right. If you want to be a slave, be a slave. If you don't, then fine.” As if people would actually want to be slaves. This segment of the film was particularly hard for me to watch, just because I dislike when southerners play directly into the hand of the southern stereotype. The essayistic film must bring the good and the bad with it, I suppose.
The idea of rebuilding is present in terms of the actual Civil War history featured in the piece, as well as in the minds of the women who are interviewed. McElwee’s sister treats plastic surgery like it is some run of the mill occurrence. Even Claudia, who is the most religious one, has to “feel like I look right” before she leaves the house, putting on a full face of makeup and styling her hair just to go skating. There is an extreme dichotomy at some points between the female characters simply being southern belles while also strong and powerful women. Nevertheless, the women are all building or rebuilding themselves into something they perceive as better than before.
Sherman’s March is a movie that has made examine my own identity as a person from the south. Parts of the film make me feel like home, and remind me of growing up back in the early ‘90s, as it was shot a few years before. But, watching Sherman’s March also put me in touch with the struggles of others. Southerners can be anti-cosmopolitan and politically incorrect, so seeing this much of it on screen can be sickening. It makes me rethink the way I portray myself to the world, while also inspiring me to be as anti-belle as possible. In the end, there is something to be learned from the good and the bad parts of the south the McElwee portrays, I think.
Corrigan, Timothy. 2016. "Essayism And Contemporary Film Narrative". In The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia, 15-27. New York: Wallflower Press.
McElwee, Ross. 1986. Sherman's March: A Meditation On The Possibility Of Romantic Love In The South During An Era Of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. Film.