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By Jay Hardwig

APRIL 6, 1998: 

Sherman's March (1986)

D: Ross McElwee

Charleen Swansea from director Ross McElwee's Sherman's March and subject of the eponymous Charleen

Ross McElwee is a modern master of cinema vérité -- rough, real-life documentary filmmaking that seeks to expose a subject's soul through its very lack of polish. In McElwee's case, that subject is almost always himself. Insistently personal, always autobiographical, occasionally exploitative, watching McElwee is like watching someone's (well-financed) home videos. That may sound like faint praise, but McElwee elevates the form. While his films can be maddeningly ordinary, at times they're almost genius. They are both insufferably egocentric and incredibly compelling; while they walk a fine line, they fall more often to art than to narcissism. Take, for example, Sherman's March, widely considered Ross McElwee's masterpiece. He had planned to examine the lingering effects of Sherman's march on the Southern psyche; instead, he ends up examining his own psyche, using a recent break-up to reflect upon the dilapidated state of his romantic life and begin a tongue-in-cheek search for the perfect mate. I'll say this: Ross McElwee knows who to follow when he's got that camera on. Sherman's March is a parade of fascinatin' Southern women, including Pat, a self-described female prophet and wannabe starlet who dreams of falling in love with Burt Reynolds; Winnie, a cow-milking hippie linguist of discerning intelligence; Joyce, a big-haired soul-singer on the Carolina lounge circuit; and so on and so on seemingly ad infinitum (it's a long film). Then there's McElwee himself, as the wry, vulnerable, and sometimes pathetic narrator with a fear of Armageddon and a passing interest in the life of William Tecumseh Sherman. Among the romantic parries and thrusts there are several priceless scenes, including a particularly painful honkytonk, the meeting of the Antichrist and the Easter bunny, and a discussion of Southern slavery so vapid that it boggles the mind. Sherman's March is undoubtedly a good film, amusing enough that its nearly three-hour length fairly slides by, but sometimes you have to wonder why McElwee keeps that damn camera running all the time. At times he comes dangerously close to exploiting his subjects' trust -- when an ex-girlfriend says "you're gonna make me cry" is when he zooms close to her face (the better to see the tears). He makes many of his subjects look like the sort of patent fools that documentarians delight in exposing, and more than one such fool doesn't like it. Perhaps the most telling line is offered as an aggravated aside by a burly man whose girlfriend McElwee is trying to steal: "You sure you never had anybody hit you?" I wondered the same thing, but at the same time I had trouble resenting poor Ross, with his heart so palpably on his sleeve. In the end, it is McElwee's genuine affection for the people he films that redeem the bald intrusions of Sherman's March.

Time Indefinite (1993)

In Time Indefinite, a sequel of sorts to Sherman's March, McElwee explores this tension, claiming that his films are simply an expression of his love. True to his word, Time Indefinite begins as a worrisome love song to both his family and his new wife Marilyn, with McElwee offering his (sometimes indulgent) reflections on marriage, childbirth, and family. This slightly neurotic/slightly charming lullaby, however, is interrupted by a series of personal tragedies, and Time Indefinite wheels abruptly and turns into an extended meditation on mortality, loss, and the power of memory. McElwee's insistence on probing these personal disasters gives the film an incredible rawness and realism that makes for the most compelling documentary; he also seems to be learning when to shut his camera off. Time Indefinite is an often grueling film, not nearly so lighthearted as Sherman's March, as McElwee finds himself trapped in a "morbid metaphysical feedback loop" -- a loop he escapes only by finding (and filming) affirmations of life in and amongst the death. It is a serious watch.

Charleen (1978) & Backyard (1984)

In the wake of McElwee's continuing critical success, First Run Features has released a single tape containing two of McElwee's early films, Charleen and Backyard. Charleen is a (what else?) affectionate portrait of Charleen Swansea, a passionate and effusive poetry teacher who plays a central role in both Sherman's March and Time Indefinite. Completed in 1978, Charleen is clearly a period piece, full of Seventies luv and bad video, and it plays at times like a Southern Gothic Real World episode (I was personally delighted to hear Charleen call her ex-man "an absolute pluperfect jackass"). It is an engaging character study of the wax-chewin', eminently Southern Swansea, a volatile mix of vitality and swagger who combines a withering wit with a streak of self-pity. Backyard is a study of (what else?) McElwee's family, with a concentration on the conflicts between a peacenik filmmakin' son and his staunch and conservative surgeon father. There are some interesting scenes (a Southern society wedding, a beekeeper who takes his visions from God) but for the most part McElwee looks to the ordinary (egg-frying, shaving, lawnmowing), trying to find a hidden truth in the mundane, the trifling, the uncurious. It is a strategy McElwee uses to increasing effect in his later films, but in Backyard it doesn't quite work. Charleen and Backyard will be of interest to those curious about McElwee's artistic development, but as straight documentaries I can't recommend them. Watching a bunch of McElwee films can be exasperating, both for their obsessive autobiographical tone and their insistence on exposing private moments. In his quest to document real life, McElwee seems to compromise the quality of his own. He films his blind dates, break-ups, and even his wife's gynecological exams ("feeling very healthy," the OB/GYN cheerfully reports). McElwee himself admits that living through the lens has given him a "detached perspective on life"; he hints that it is a way to keep his tragedies abstract. Okay, then, but it keeps his triumphs abstract too, as when he films the better part of his own wedding day (with his bride looking a mite peeved). At times you want to yank the camera from his hands and yell at him, as Charleen does in Sherman's March, "This is not art, this is life!" But in McElwee's films -- and here's the catch -- it is art. -- Jay Hardwig

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