Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sherman's March (film group essay)

Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South in the Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

Like most citizens of TV-land, I enountered Ross McElwee’s documentary Sherman’s March as a PBS special sometime in 1987. Ads for the show didn’t appeal to me. The movie had something to do with the Civil War and a modern-day Southerner’s romantic adventures. At that time, I construed the film to be a variant of the famous PBS show, An American Family (1971), the proto-type of all reality TV shows and a program that I had loathed. PBS’ promotional materials suggested that the film was a "slice of life" and that, if you enjoyed An American Family, you would like McElwee’s movie. I had never heard of Ross McElwee, disliked the South and Southerners in general, and wasn’t interested in another reprise of the dull, and remote, American Civil War. So I made up my mind to avoid the show.

One evening, while channel-surfing, I came upon a film that had a curious, self-referential tone. The movie was underway and I wasn’t sure what it was that I was watching. The show was quite funny, but, also, erotic in a mournful, self-deprecating way and I was immediately drawn into the film, intrigued by its sexual undertones and the obvious intelligence with which the movie had been made. I watched the last hour or so of the picture only to discover that it was Sherman’s March. In those days, PBS mercilessly recycled its documentaries and so I had plenty of later occasions to see the movie – however, I don’t know that I have ever watched the entire movie in sequence, from beginning to end. Rather, I dabbled in McElwee’s odyssey, dipping into the long picture like you might dip into the essays of Montaigne. The movie was comprised of a series of romantic adventures, most of them near-misses and, apparently, unconsummated, that follow in a bizarre way the course of Sherman’s devastating March to the Sea. I thought the movie was charming and ingeniously made. The historical references were fascinating and the film’s general thesis was clever, even profound – a great conqueror strides across the South destroying its culture and, then, 120 years later, a nebbish follows in his footsteps completely incapable of conquering anything, let alone the headstrong women that he encounters. I developed an admiration for the movie when I overcame my resistance to the Southern accents. It is pretentious to admit this but, when I imagined the film in French or German, with subtitles, I was able to appreciate the film on its own merits. Even today, I think, I would most like to see Sherman’s March dubbed into German and, then, subtitled. (In fact, the full, extended title to the film sounds distinctly Brechtian.) If I can admire greatly, Chris Marker’s San Soleil, then why do I have a resistance to Ross McElwee’s work, films that resemble those by the French director?

McElwee was contracted to produce three documentaries for PBS. Sherman’s March was followed by Time Indefinite (1993), a documentary about death and dying, and, also, a very funny film. The Six O’clock News is the third of the PBS-sponsored films. It was first shown on the network in 1997. I don’t believe that I have seen this movie, apparently, a meditation on the media. In 2003, McElwee’s Bright Leaves, a picture about his family’s historical involvement in the South Carolina tobacco industry was released and, also, shown on PBS. That film was also very interesting, wry, and quite funny.

McElwee’s films are primarily about his response to his Southern heritage and have an autobiographical, even diary-like, structure. The protagonist of many of McElwee’s films, but most notable Sherman’s March is a droll, bemused everyman, a character called "Ross McElwee" who, I suppose, bears as much resemblance to the real Ross McElwee, a 67-year old film maker from Charlotte, North Carolina as "Borges" bears to the writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges from Buenos Aires – a fancy way of saying that McElwee’s persona, of course, is a fictional construct. Some critics complain that McElwee is relentlessly self-absorbed – this is true, but beside the point: making this criticism of McElwee’s work is like condemning Proust for writing long sentences or denouncing Michael Bay for explosions in his movies – a McElwee film predictably records the directors reaction to certain important aspects of the human experience. The curious thing about McElwee’s films, a characteristic of documentary, is that the movie’s are oddly decentered, something like Salvatore Giuliano – they are about a character that we only rarely see since, of course, McElwee is operating, and, therefore, behind, his camera.

Islands and Bombs

The least interesting character in Sherman’s March is Ross McElwee. This is a conceit, an intentional fiction – clearly McElwee must be an interesting fellow to attract the remarkable women who populate the film. But the movie depicts a man with a camera so obsessively committed to recording his life that he forgets to live. How many times is he embraced by someone while still resolutely holding onto the camera and operating it? The woman about to depart approaches for a clinch, she blurs out of focus, and McElwee’s camera turns sideways to loiter on some meaningless detail of landscape or decor. There seems little doubt that he filmed sex scenes with, at least, some of these women – I wonder in what attic at PBS that footage lurks, waiting to be discovered.

Two broad themes underlie McElwee’s voice-over narration and his editing. (Voiced commenatary and editing establish the meaning of documentary footage in general; from raw material consisting of thousands of feet of filmed imagery, the documentary director assembles a selection of pictures to illustrate his theme and create his narrative. If the pictures can’t support the theme and narrative, the film maker can add his own commentary in the form of a voice-over.) These themes can be roughly characterized as follows: first, the film maker hides behind his camera to avoid commitment; he is radically disengaged from encounters with other people because these interactions are always mediated by the camera. The second theme developed in the movie is a question as to why the film maker avoids commitment – this is an exploration of the director’s psychological aversion to commitment. McElwee posits two theories for his aloof stance – he implies that trauma at an early age (his witnessing a H-bomb blast from a Hawaiian island) has left him with profound fears about nuclear catastrophe; these fears seem to undercut his desire for meaningful relationships with women – what’s the point of forming a bond with a woman, marrying, and having children if we are all going to snuffed out by a thermonuclear apocalyspe. McElwee’s second hypothesis as to his unfortunate love life relates to his ambivalence about participation in life – he is like his historic mentor, William Tecumseh Sherman: he both loves the South, as exemplified by the women he encounters, and, yet, seems to despise it as well. McElwee is a Southerner who nostalgically longs for his home, yet spends his professional life in Boston. Film making for him is war – it’s the conquest of an adversary both feared and desired. Making a film is inimical to participating in life – Charleen challenges him with the words: "This isn’t art, it’s life" and, repeatedly, demands that he put the camera down and engage in life, not making art. But McElwee understands that the appeal of art exactly is that it isn’t life. That’s why we make art – to avoid life and its miseries and to escape to rational beautifully organized structure of meaning. McElwee’s life bears no resemblance to Sherman’s march to the sea – the metaphor is baroque, metaphysical, like one of John Donne’s conceits. But the metaphor, although practically untrue, is a way of making sense of reality and McElwee is going to stick with it through thick and thin, even though the abeyance to his persona as a detached, ambivalent, artistic observer disqualifies him from life.

There is a third basis for McElwee’s refusal to "passionately" (to use Charleen’s word) engage with life. As a son of the South, McElwee is too chivalrous to state this basis for his aloof stance, but it’s relatively apparent from the film. The women that McElwee encounters are, more or less, crazy, themselves, highly eccentric. On some level, there is something wrong with the women that McElwee selects as actual (or potential) romantic partners.

Pat, the would-be actress, is vain, narcissistic starstruck – she announces the film’s obsession with Burt Reynolds as the epitome of the perfect male – and eccentric to the point of apparent mental illness. She seems only remotely connected with reality. The linguist living out a version of Thoreau’s Walden, although with sex, is simply too smart and too weird for McElwee – she’s also, apparently, half-crazy. When McElwee asks her about sleeping with linguistics professor she admits that "at that time in (her) life," she was interested in only two things "linguistics and sex." The anti-nuclear activist is too saintly and ascetic for McElwee, too committed, it seems, to the idealistic task of improving the world. Didi, the Mormon, is obsessed with the end of days and can’t marry outside her religion – she seems frighteningly, if sweetly, fanatical about her religious convictions. Joy, the night-club singer, is like Pat; she’s a self-absorbed exhibitionist and the social distinction between her and McElwee render any meaningful relationship impossible: Joy seems to epitomize a "White Trash" subculture very remote from McElwee’s genteel family and most of the women in which he expresses an interest. Karen, the only woman for whom McElwee turns off his camera, is like him – an intellectual leading an experimental life: she is lawyer, prosecutor, and avid Feminist, although there is something highly ambivalent and conflicted about her Feminism. Even women peripheral to McElwee’s sexual ambitions seem bizarre, half-crazed – his sister and the woman modeling clothes at the fashion-show seem obsessed with physical perfection; McElwee’s stepmother has an odd affect and a nagging, glittering eye.

Central to the film both thematically and structurally is the astounding Charleen, "my old teacher," McElwee tells us. Flamboyant and fantastically articulate she is a spokes(woman) for real life, for love, passion, and obviously sex. (When Didi turns out to be unacceptable as a mate for McElwee, Charleen offers him another woman, "a real doll...and she sleeps around.") Charleen is wonderfully exuberant, excessive, and charismatic – she is like a female Falstaff or Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and her exhortations to McElwee to abandon his camera and passionately engage with life echo the audience’s perception at the point in the film when things start to repeat and our attention to the long movie flags. But there is something a bit eerie about Charleen also – it seems apparent that she is sexually interested in McElwee despite being married and considerably older than the film maker. Her quest to get McElwee laid seems to originate in perverse vicarious urges in her. She delights in dressing provocatively for McElwee’s camera, flaunting her enormous bosom and her Dolly Parton-like Barbie-doll features, and we see her leading McElwee into some kind of long, dark tunnel, obviously a sexual referent, a kind of lover’s lane, a sort of Walmart Venusberg. She is by far the most attractive figure in the film, the warmest and most accessible of the women with whom McElwee transacts his abstract busines – yet she also seems remarkable excessive like a figure from a Fellini film. (Indeed, McElwee’s movie bears more than a passing resemblance to Fellini’s 8 ½, a picture about a film director stymied in his effort to produce a movie by the predatory and rapacious women around him.)

As with Once upon a Time in Anatolia, McElwee uses the great length of the film for artistic purposes. Everything in the film seems to repeat albeit with slight variations. The movie’s length is used to signify its epic ambitions – the hero is a kind of Lohengrin or Tannhauser engaged in a sexual quest through terrain that equates with the ideology of southern womanhood. But this quest is doomed to failure – and McElwee’s search for a woman fails at length. This failure is not the result of personal deficiencies or accidental failure to encounter the right woman. To the contrary, McElwee samples just about every possible version of White Southern woman and finds that none of them suit him (or if they suit him, these women are inaccessible). McElwee’s failure is construed as heroic, massive, and systemic – he has explored the entire world of the old South, been assisted by a formidable pander in Charleen, and, yet, none of his encounters yields any lasting satisfaction. It’s important to the film that McElwee fail and, further, that he fail on an epic scale. Hence, the film’s pattern of doubling and tripling events: there are two groups of Doomsday preppers, two crazy and narcissistic show-biz women – further, all of the women have roommates who seem also to have some interest in McElwee and are also possibly available to him. Events repeat in variations establishing complex thematic patterns – the film is full of different kinds of ruins, rivers, islands. Pat’s imaginary island is mirrored by the strange, chigger-infested island where the linguist lives. In an early scene, McElwee records Scottish "Highland Games" at some kind of Celtic gathering: in a comical vignette, a burly fellow struggles to raise a huge tapered pole, the most obvious of all phallic images – it is a "Caber Tossing" event. Later, we see men similarly laboring to raise a cross, an image inducing an unsettling allusion to the phallic competition at the games. In Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a German proverb is cited: Einmal ist Keinmal – that is, "one time is nothing." McElwee edits the film so that it is voluptuously replete: in large part, the rhetoric of the film is demonstration by repetition.


The Georgia Guidestones

In Sherman’s March, McElwee’s method is elliptical. Ellipsis is necessary, of course, because McElwee can’t film the intimacy with the women that he is seeking. Certainly, it is obvious that the relationship with several of the women is sexual – however, the sexual encounters are chivalrously implied, but not stated. As a son of the South, McElwee is a gentleman: he doesn’t kiss and tell. But this limitation on what the film represents also "decenters" the movie – it is about something that is barely mentioned, let alone shown.

Characteristic of McElwee’s reticence is a sequence involving a a visit to "America’s Stonehenge" – the Georgia Guidestones in Elbert County, on the border with South Carolina in northeast Georgia. In 1979, an unknown person (or persons) acting under the "pseudonyn" (sic) of R. C. Christian, contracted with the Elberton Granite Company (at the county seat) to erect five granite monoliths supporting a lintel capstone. The monoliths collectively weigh 240,000 pounds and stand on a knoll near an adjacent highway. Inscribed on the monolith are various admonitions repeated in eight language ranging from Russian through Swahili, Hebrew and Mandarin Chinese. A shorter version of the minatory text is incised into the capstone in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Classical Greek, Latin, and Babylonian cuneiform. The stelae are oriented according to astronomical principles. A smaller stone monument suggests explains the astronomical orientation of the monoliths, provides technical data as to their weight and height, and explains that the legend on the towering slabs is intended to guide mankind that a nuclear holocaust destroys civilization. Accordingly, the monument is explicitly post-apocalyptic and directly correlated to McElwee’s theme as to the hazards of love in the "era of nuclear proliferation." McElwee, however, uses the monoliths as a background to an encounter with one of the women, doesn’t specifically exploit the remarkable thematic connection between the stones and his narrative, and, in fact, leaves the audience with only a little information about the monument where the sequence is shot.

Several of the instructions carved into the stones have a direct connection to themes in the movie. The stone asserts that the population of the world must be maintained below "500,000,000." And the third instruction is "Guide Reproduction Wisely – maintaining fitness and diversity."


A Joke

McElwee is fond of monuments. The film documents his visit to Stone Mountain near Atlanta where the cavaliers of the Confederacy are carved onto a huge granite wall. Stone Mountain is sheer on one side but gradually sloping on its opposing face. A narrow-gage railroad leads to the top of the peak where there is a vista overlooking the escarpment on which the Confederate generals appear on horseback. McElwee shows this monument – in effect, a tribute to White Supremacy. We see performers in period costumes enacting some kind of shoot-out, possibly a scene from Reconstruction as imagined by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind. (I’ve been to Stone Mountain and recall its strongly racist ambience – but I don’t remember people tableaux along the side of the rail tracks leading to the top of the mountain.)

Toward the end of the film, we see Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ monument of General Sherman at the corner of Central Park in Manhattan. This monument, cast in bronze in 1902, shows Sherman on horseback, grim and battered like the God of War. He is led forward by a winged female figure bearing a palm of victory. The monument is gilded. A Southerner once remarked: "Sherman! Typical of a damned Yankee. He rides on horseback and makes the lady walk."



McElwee’s films espouse this method: if enough footage is assembled and, then, edited analytically, a narrative can be constructed with mythic overtones. The length and profusion of material in McElwee’s pictures allows him to devise structures (and systems of cross-referencing emblems) that give his films an archetypal resonance. This is particularly true with Sherman’s March.

An innocent, young man, perhaps a holy fool or a kind of knight, departs from his home on a quest. The young man is equipped with an unique gift, a well-nigh magical power, that will protect him against perils. In the course of his travels, the knight is tempted, typically by a seductive woman or series of women. He succumbs to temptation. Wisdom must be achieved by sexual experience and all knowledge, perhaps, is carnal. The young man loses his way in a labyrinth of sexual pleasure. However, in the end, he recalls his quest, repents his sexual indulgences, and attempts to return to the mission that has been appointed for him. In the German myth of Tannhauser, the Knight is a crusader, but departs from his quest when seduced by Venus and entrapped in her underground grotto and pleasure garden, the Venusberg. Tannhauser’s magical power is his ability as a singer (minnesinger) – that is, his ability to transmute his erotic adventures into art. Tannhauser awakens one day in his seraglio, senses that his life has become meaningless, and escapes the wiles of the seductress. He travels to Rome to ask forgiveness from the Pope. The Pope refuses Tannhauser’s confession and, cynically, says that the knight will be forgiven when the Pope’s wooden staff blossoms. Disappointed, Tannhauser leaves and, perhaps, dies of a broken heart. Three days after the knight has left the Pope’s palace, the Holy Father’s staff blossoms. Messengers are sent to recall the Knight but it is too late. The image of the dead phallus, the Pope’s withered and inert staff, suddenly blossoming signifies that Tannhauser’s way to wisdom through sexual excess was, in fact, holy.

Ross McElwee’s magical talisman is his camera, that is, his ability to transmute his experience into a film. The camera is both his sword and his shield – it protects him, while allowing the film maker to penetrate the experiences that he encounters. McElwee’s quest is to make sense of nuclear proliferation in light of the Old South’s tragic history as embodied in Sherman’s March to the Sea. But McElwee is diverted from his mission by the various women that he encounters. Central to those encounters is his meeting with Charleen, a figure like Venus herself. Ultimately, McElwee extricates himself from the women that he has been pursuing. We see him standing in a ruined plantation indicative of the apparent failure of his Quest. McElwee flees to a wintry New England, repenting his folly. But, of course, there he encounters another woman and, figuratively, his staff of dead wood blossoms again with the chorus from Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" thundering on the soundtrack. This climax is a curious allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange – in that film, the hero, Alex, has been subjected to conditioning that has sexually anesthetized him; however, at the end of the film, Alex regains his sexual prowess and, in the final scene, is copulating with a woman to the music of Beethoven’s symphony.





When he was in his mid-seventies, Joseph Campbell, famous for his scholarly studies of James Joyce and mythology, lectured at the University of Minnesota. Campbell was old and frail. Of course, he was a proponent of the idea of the mono-myth – that is, the notion that all world mythology comprised a single archetypal structure. This structure could be characterized as the story of a hero ("the hero with a thousand faces") who ventured from his home, was granted a mission (like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now) "for his sins," suffered during his Quest, and was ultimately tempted into abandoning that Quest. In the end, the hero grasps that his temptation, and his seduction away from his holy mission, was also a part of the Quest. Either he succeeds in achieving his objective, more or less accidentally, and, then, dies or fails heroically (and also dies).

I attended Campbell’s lecture presented to a large audience at the Coffman Memorial Union on the campus. Campbell was, then, teaching in an emeritus position at a women’s college, possibly Vassar. Campbell said that his students rejected his notion of the mono-myth as a typically male conceit. Campbell told us that he responded to one of the women who had challenged his theory by asserting that it ignored the experiences of "half of the human race" – that is, women. "I was incensed," Campbell said, "I said to her – what do you mean? A woman give birth to the hero, raises him, and teaches him her wisdom. A woman is the subject of the Quest. Women seduce the hero away from performing the Quest and are the objects of his striving. In the end, the hero dies and returns to the womb of the primordial mothers. At every step in the hero’s quest, women are involved. What more could you want?" The girl responded: "I want to be the hero."

Charleen Swansea was born in 1933 and, presently, resides in Chapel Hill. As it is said in some of the fairy tales collected by the Grimm Brothers: Wenn sie is nicht gestorben, lebt sie noch – if she hasn’t yet died, she still alive. She is most famous for appearing in four of Ross McElwee’s films. She is the subject of McElwee’s first film, a 59 minute documentary, named after her Charleen (1977). When Sherman’s March begins to flag, McElwee brings her into the picture and she revs up the proceedings, jolting the movie back into life. Charleen is also an important figure in McElwee’s Time Indefinite. In that film, McElwee’s musings on death and mortality, Charleen’s husband dies in a house fire. Charleen believes that her husband, who was suffering from lead poisoning, set the fire intentionally and died while playing the grand piano at the center of the blaze, a suitably operatic demise. Charleen is carrying her dead husband’s cremated remains which she can’t manage to scatter. For her part in Time Indefinite, Charleen Swansea was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, an extraordinary honor since she is, of course, not a professional actor at all. Charleen also appears in McElwee’s 1996 film The Six O’Clock News.

McElwee met Charleen when she was conducting poetry seminars in the Charlotte public schools. He filmed her working with largely African-American students in classroom settings in his 1977 documentary – Swansea is naturally photogenic, larger than life, and fantastically flirtatious and sexy. (Scenes in which she flirts with her male students are astonishing; today, she would be put in prison for some of her classroom tactics.) McElwee revered Swansea and regarded her as his muse and lifelong teacher.

Charleen Swansea was the daughter of a dentist who sold false teeth. She claims that she spent her childhood traveling around with her father, a sleazy con-artist, with a valise full of false molars. At 18. Swansea decided that she would find another, older man that she could appoint as her spiritual father. Using her beauty and feminine wiles, she hitchhiked around the country and finagled meetings with people like Albert Einstein, Conrad Aiken, e. e. cummings, and Buckminster Fuller, each of whom she claims to have studied with. Ultimately, she fell under the sway of Ezra Pound and spent several years visiting him daily at St. Elizabeths’ Hospital for the Criminally Insane (Washington, D. C.) where he had been committed after his treason conviction. Charleen credits Pound as her teacher. She married in 1956 over Pound’s strenuous objections – by this time, Charleen had acquired a degree in literature as well as an MFA in poetry. As a young mother, she edited the Red Clay Journal, an important Southern literary magazine and was instrumental in publishing a number of books by Southern writers. After divorcing her first husband, Charleen married again – it was her second husband, from whom she was estranged, who died in the house fire while playing their grand piano. McElwee met Charleen when he was hired to document some of her teaching activities in the Charlotte public schools. In the film, Charleen, she plots to sell Pound’s many letters to her – she is down on her luck and needs to make some money. She is shown teaching and, also, lecturing a group of old women at her mother’s Baptist Church.

Along the way, Charleen Swansea earned a doctoral degree in neurobiology. She published a number of books on brain science and became a consultant for Fortune 500 companies. At that point, she vanishes from history and the internet – the weblinks are all broken...

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