A Contentious Debate About Sherman’s March

Remedial Film School

Ross McElwee’s documentary puts two critics at odds.

I am a film critic, but almost all of the movies I watch are new releases. That is going to change. With Jeff Bayer’s Remedial Film School a notable film critic or personality will assign me (and you) one film per month. Christopher Campbell from NonFics, and Film School Rejects is our guest, and he chose Sherman’s March (currently available to rent at local video stores or purchase on iTunes). Each section begins with a quote from the film.

“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.”

Christopher Campbell: In my efforts to get more movie fans more into documentary, Sherman’s March is my favorite to recommend. Yet it’s also one of the hardest to pitch to people. For one thing, which I always forget, it’s kinda long. Also, very few people have heard of it. As far as doc classics go, it’s not as well-known and therefore easily promoted as The Thin Blue Line, Gimme Shelter, Nanook of the North, or even Triumph of the Will (thanks, Star Wars!). But it’s one of the most influential films of all time. Ross McElwee’s first-person style led to the model we associate today with people like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Still, nobody else has ever made a film quite like this.

While most gateways into documentary appreciation involve performances by popular music acts or focus on important issues, Sherman’s March is appealing as a sort of cinematic memoir and also as a kind of nonfiction rom-com. It’s basically the Annie Hall of documentaries, with as much insight about culture and relationships and as many laughs, particularly when McElwee’s mentor and friend Charleen shows up to play matchmaker. I honestly can’t remember when or how or why I first saw Sherman’s March (perhaps in a college class on documentary history), but it’s hard to recall a time before I was familiar with Charleen.

I think Bayer will like Sherman’s March because he has a good sense of humor. I hope Bayer likes Sherman’s March, because I think as a family man of a certain age with children of his own, he will have a good experience continuing on with the rest of McElwee’s films that have come in the past 30 years as they have dealt more with fatherhood and son-hood. Also it will give him some proper background when the in-the-works remake of Sherman’s March finally comes out and he has to review that.

“Speaking of apple juice, do we have an bourbon?”

Jeff Bayer: Please keep in mind I haven’t read Campbell’s above section yet. I like putting down my thoughts first. Before watching this film some of my favorite documentaries were The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Hoop Dreams, and Call Me Lucky. They aren’t my official “best” but they are close to the top. Also The Russian Woodpecker is amazing, and the only reason I saw it (if memory serves) was because of Campbell’s recommendation. I had zero doubt that whatever he picked, I would enjoy. Based on Campbell’s “Best Documentaries of All Time” that he did for Thrillist.com in May, I told him to pick one of his top four (I hadn’t seen any). “The Thin Blue Line is essential, but you might enjoy Sherman’s March more,” he said. I am sad to say, I did not. Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation is the least favorite film I have watched for this column. I’m pretty happy about that. It’s about time I significantly disagreed with a guest.

Early on, there is a shot of Ross in the distance, sweeping. Not a sweeping, grand camera shot. He was literally sweeping the floor. Ross is pretty much doing nothing, and I ponder for a moment why he is doing this, filming this, using this footage. At this point, he had not shown us what he looks like, and you can’t make him out too well from this vantage point. My conclusion: Ross thinks he is art. He’s inserted himself right away in this doc, and while that is normal now, I’m not sure how often that happened in the ‘80s.

This is where I could easily prove to be foolish. Perhaps Ross was a known artist before this film. I purposely don’t do research beforehand. Maybe I’m missing the part with how ground-breaking (for its time) this documentary is, but overall I found it mildly amusing at times, near pointless at others. Worst of all, I think I dislike Ross McElwee. I know he is dry, but it doesn’t feel like it’s on purpose for humor’s sake. At least it didn’t come across that way to me. Ross walks the South. He was paid to make a documentary based on Sherman’s famous “March to the Sea” during the Civil War. Instead, he meets women and considers having relationships. At times it feels scripted, like he’s creating drama where it doesn’t exist.

The insight into the South during the ’80s gives us moments like a country club lunch, which also has models walking around showing off the latest fashion. That’s definitely fun, and the movie is at its best when there are multiple subjects for Ross to play off of. Unfortunately, too many times it is just him awkwardly hanging out with one woman, instead of at a dinner party where someone mentions “if you want to be a slave, be a slave, if not, fine.” Ahhh, the South.

OK, I just read Campbell’s first section. For the record, I love Annie Hall. McElwee has more? This is the part where I do feel like an idiot for not knowing that. “Remedial” really is a good title for this column. Give me one more McElwee doc I should watch. Yes, seeing him as a father, or see who he ends up with would be interesting. You are correct about the running time of Sherman’s March. The 2.5 hours could have been edited down to 90 minutes and perhaps changed my entire perception of the film. It felt like so much stumbling.

Some questions for you or random thoughts about the film …
How many times do you think you’ve seen this film and when is the last time you’ve watched it (all the way through)? Who is your favorite of his potential ladies? Mine is definitely Pat. From her cellulite exercises, to her screenplay pitch, she’s my kind of crazy (if I was still in my early 20s). Claudia has a great line about riding a bike or making love, and how you never forget. That put her in the running, but she said that in front of her daughter. At about 1:17 into the film Ross decides to go back to an island where he is one of three people, and Winnie is now with the other guy. Why? I ended up liking that he got stung by bees and couldn’t sleep. Charlene is a necessary jolt for the film, but she’s actually a terrible matchmaker, right? Cam and his friends trade large animals. This is something that demands a “Why?” or at least the humor of Cam foolishly attempting to explain why he does this. The film doesn’t bother. Does that amuse you or bug you?

I am happy, because I know you know your stuff, Campbell. I will definitely trust your next recommendation. I didn’t like this one, and I’d love for you to “prove me wrong” below. So let’s do this. Give me your response. Am I a fool? Does this show that a deep-dive into documentaries isn’t for me? I can take it. To me, the next quote sums up the film, and its issues. Also, humor me and cast the remake.

Movie Score: 4/10

“It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film.”

Christopher Campbell: I’m severely disappointed in this turn of events. Is Sherman’s March not for everyone, and does that not make it a masterpiece? Is Ross McElwee no longer relevant to newcomers after decades of followers and copycats? I’ve probably seen the film all the way through a handful of times, which for me is a lot. I rarely see films more than once, at least not in my precious older ages. But this one does get richer with each viewing, so it’s worth it. The last time was probably a few years ago when I wrote a celebration of Charleen Swansea here on FSR.

I don’t have a favorite of his potential ladies. I’ve never thought of the film in those terms. I also don’t know why it matters if Charleen is an effective matchmaker or not. She’s just an old friend and mentor trying to set Ross up. And I’m not sure I understand why any answers are needed about why people do the things they do in the film. They’re real people, not scripted. I know I may sound mad or annoyed. I’m just upset about the reaction to a beloved work I’ve hoped could become enjoyed by a peer.

There’s no proving you wrong at this point. And you’re not a fool for having a different approach and reaction to it. The quote you say sums up the problem of the film is one I in turn find rather fascinating. Anyway, I should have gone with The Thin Blue Line, perhaps. Or offered an introduction to McElwee through Bright Leaves, which might be more of interest for its film history elements. It’s more concentrated in its themes of heritage and the South and storytelling. But if you already dislike McElwee, it could be a tough sell.

Finally, I can not humor you with casting the remake because I can’t even imagine how that could be. It’s absurd to me. I’m only interested in the doc McElwee has been making about it happening.

“It’s like pubic hair. Part, part the bushes. Go into the place. Go with it, Ross.”

Jeff Bayer: I used this quote because I was ready for you to explain to me how to enjoy Ross and just go with him. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. It feels like I just kicked sand on you and stole your girl. Where is the fight? Where is the passion? I wanted my opinion corrected, not this feeling of sadness.

It does seem that we brought different perspectives to the film. After all, this was McElwee’s point of view (literally for most of the movie). How could you not consider his journey in search of companionship, and wonder what you would do in his place? Given the pace of the film, I had plenty of time to consider each woman, just as McElwee did, and think. It feels like you just said, “Oh, I didn’t realize Charlize Theron was attractive, I only noticed her acting.”

It does not matter if Charlene is good or bad at being a matchmaker, but I think contemplating this is a perfectly valid use of conversation. Answers provide clarity of direction. In the example I said about Cam trading large animals, McElwee took the time to film these moments. He didn’t take the time to be curious about it. That is how most of this felt to me. You and McElwee do not seem to care about the lack of clarity, and for this subject, pace, and energy I could have used more. Now I’m fascinated to hear how many people you’ve had watch this film, and if I’m the first to feel differently.

Since I beat you up enough for you not to even consider casting the remake/narrative, I’ll take over from here. The safe answer would be Sam Rockwell because he makes everything better. For a while I got stuck on the idea that Shia LaBeouf would be great, but I ultimately realized I would be amazed to see him in a documentary trying to find love, and trying to be real, however he considers that concept, which is not Sherman’s March.

I will watch The Thin Blue Line, and if I hate it I’m pretty sure that will prove I have terrible taste in documentaries and you’ll have a renewed faith in your recommendations. There’s the silver lining. Fingers crossed.

Your Next Assignment: Guest critic David Ehrlich (IndieWire) selected My Neighbor Totoro. It is a film from Hayao Miyazaki. Ehrlich doesn’t know this, but I did not like Ponyo, and I thought Spirited Away was just OK. I’ve been looked for someone to try and convince me Miyazaki is a good storyteller. My Neighbor Totoro is available to purchase on Amazon, or rent at video stores. It is also available online through many websites that all seem very sketchy. Your due date is July 28.