Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: In honor of the Netflix release of Sundance sensation Dick Johnson Is Dead, we’re looking back on other documentaries with deeply personal angles.
A 155-minute documentary in which the chief subjects are the filmmaker’s love life and his failed attempt to make an altogether different documentary about the legacy of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s March To The Sea is the definition of self-indulgence. But if one is in the habit of grading things based on ease of identification or use of apportioned resources (in this case, grant money), then it’s probably best not to bother with artists. What Ross McElwee’s classic Sherman’s March offers is less a trenchant perspective on life in the Reagan-era American South than a rambling series of droll observations that accumulate into something more compelling than a self-portrait.
That McElwee set out to become a writer before switching to documentary film is not surprising. Ever since Sherman’s March first appeared in 1986, critics have pointed out its novelistic qualities, comparing it favorably to the work of various priapic male authors. Insofar as it has a plot, it is one of running frustrations, as McElwee documents (in approximate order of importance) his efforts to find a girlfriend, make a meaningful statement about the legacy of General Sherman, and meet Burt Reynolds. The last of these leads to one of the film’s most memorable vignettes, in which McElwee encounters a Reynolds look-alike who, as it turns out, is also trying to meet the star. Some existential insight may be gleaned from this moment.
Of course, what distinguishes McElwee—a bespectacled, soft-spoken, and self-effacing upper-middle-class Southerner—from his literary counterparts is that he lacks the loathing that tends to come with an engorged ego. He also comes across as anything but a misogynist. However much its inquisitive cinéma vérité may be driven by a polite form of lust, Sherman’s March remains best-known for the portraits of highly opinionated, frequently eccentric white Southern women that take up so much of its considerable running time. Not that Sherman is ever far from McElwee’s mind. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that he identifies with the Civil War general, whom he characterizes as a neurotic and misunderstood figure to any fellow Southerner who will lend him an incredulous ear.
While the novelty of this kind of first-person filmmaking has worn off, it can still teach a few things to our age of rampant, frictionless self-documentation. At the time of the film’s release, it really did seem to a lot of viewers like McElwee was running his 16mm camera and Nagra sound recorder nonstop. Now, we are perhaps more aware of the choices he is making and the meanings that he’s trying to find in the mundane. “It seems I’m filming my life in order to have a life to film,” he says at one point in the movie, voicing a sentiment that is familiar, even if the sophisticated recording technologies we carry in our pockets don’t inspire the same level of introspection as McElwee’s noisy, bulky one-man-crew kit. In Sherman’s March, McElwee never pretends that he’s interested in his subjects as some kind of impartial documentarian—which is how we know that his curiosity about their lives is sincere.