The Blue and the Greying

From L-R: Sherman, Mr. PeabodySeveral years ago, someone recommended I watch Sherman’s March: a Meditation to the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. I’m glad I waited so long to finally see it.

The premise of the movie is that filmmaker Ross McElwee received a grant to film a documentary about Gen. Sherman’s march through the south, but just before he was to leave to begin filming, his girlfriend left him for her ex. No longer interested in a Civil War documentary, McElwee meandered through Georgia and South Carolina, roughly following Sherman’s route of destruction, spending the entire time trying to hook up with various eccentric southern women.

The movie’s more engaging than it has a right to be, considering it’s three hours of a neurotic guy lamenting his desperation and ogling women’s chests and thighs. Taken at face value, it’s an extremely personal and self-effacing document of people’s attempts to find meaning in their lives and someone to share their lives with — that story, it tells well.

But after over 20 years of enforced cynicism and the unwelcome onset of video blogs, it’s difficult not to see the layer of artifice there. McElwee says in voice-over that he’s lost himself along the way, to the point that he’s filming his life just to have a life to film. But there’s still the nagging sense that he’s created a caricature to star in the movie, cribbing character traits from Woody Allen and Albert Brooks’ fictional selves and passing them off as himself.

He dresses as a Civil War soldier for a costume party, then delivers a drunken late-night monologue to the camera about how Sherman was a tragic figure and how he can relate. He starts to deliver a documentary-style speech about Sherman at a war memorial site before stumbling out of frame by a river bank. It just comes across as fake and threatens to ruin the believability of the rest of the movie.

It’s a pretty minor complaint over all, since the movie does what it’s presented to do, it has some genuine insight, and it actually manages to convey as much real information about Gen. Sherman as you’d retain from a “real” documentary. But it teeters uncomfortably on the edge of open, honest, personal filmmaking as it is, and I have to wonder if a few more years will make it seem insufferably self-indulgent.

Speaking of being insufferably self-indulgent: what I liked best about it was seeing the south of my middle-school years, the real south as I remember it before the strip malls and subdivisions and Republicanism sucked the soul out of it.

He goes to Stone Mountain and rides the skylift and the train around the park. We see shots of Atlanta’s old skyline, when you could still see the blue hamburger. He shows bits of Savannah and the coastal islands. He shows how even the cities in Georgia had an empty, hot, rural feel to them. He shows conspiracy freaks, vacuous discussions about religion, and morbidly obese mechanics wearing white T-shirts stretched to their limit. It’d come across as more stereotyping if I hadn’t been there and seen plenty of people exactly like that.

There’s a scene where first meets one of his targets as she’s singing with a band outside a Sears in South Carolina — that kind of image perfectly sums up southern suburbs in the early 80s to me: hot, strangely desolate, and just weird.

After being hit with that kind of nostalgia, then seeing these people all desperate for something to give their lives meaning — a job, a bomb shelter, or a girlfriend — it was hard not to feel as morose and insomniac as McElwee. Has it really been that long since I was there? What have I been doing since then that’s of any importance? I’m now as old as he was when he made the movie; why do they keep referring to each other as “middle-aged?” How come I can’t stand to be back there for too long now, but still feel strangely out of place out here?

The movie’s got enough deadpan humor and clever editing that it never feels too depressing or self-indulgent. But this feeling of desperation and tragedy and yearning for some bit of satisfaction you can’t find at home, that lingers after the movie ends. So I guess that makes it art.