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‘Sherman’s March’ (NR)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1986

Ross McElwee is a beguiling amateur, and the virtue of his quirky documentary, "Sherman's March," is that it cuts against the grain, communicating the texture of real life with lazy intimacy, buoyed by McElwee's gentle humor. But McElwee is an amateur nonetheless, whose sloppiness is at war with his best instincts. And in the end, sloppiness carries the day.

The yeasty comic conceit of "Sherman's March" is this: On the eve of making a documentary on William Tecumseh Sherman, the Civil War general who devastated the South, McElwee, himself a southerner, was abandoned by his girlfriend. Depressed and hopeless, McElwee decides instead to make a film about southern women, employing his camera as a way to pick up girls.

McElwee's persona is not unlike a southern Woody Allen, an inveterate loser obsessed with women, himself the worst victim of his own haplessness, dogged by comparisons with Burt Reynolds (who appears briefly before bodyguards hustle McElwee away), tormented by an intellectual's abstract fear of nuclear war. The chemistry between him and the women he meets, who are invariably tough, strong and motivated, is a regularly delicious source of laughs.

And something more than that. The richness of "Sherman's March" comes from the way McElwee, in his roundabout way, completes the portrait of Sherman he originally set out to achieve. Sherman himself, he tells us, went into the war obsessed with a sense of failure, created mostly by the business collapses he left behind in Ohio. And his savage achievement, however dubious, hardly lasted beyond the war -- as McElwee relates, he was sabotaged by Secretary of State Edwin Stanton at the moment of surrender, and widely reviled in the northern press as, of all things, an accommodationist.

The connections McElwee makes between his quandary and Sherman's take the sepia out of our ideas about him -- he becomes alive and immediate for us. And Sherman's chief legacy may be the nature of the women McElwee interviews. Women, after all, were the ones who kept the South together against Sherman's siege -- the men were either helpless, dead or away at war. And it's not far-fetched to claim that these women carry that history with them, for they are surprisingly uniform in their attitudes -- not simply strong and tough, but exceedingly practical-minded about their careers and marriage and (paradoxically, perhaps) mystical about the afterlife and the end of the world.

But that very uniformity works against McElwee as a storyteller. As the movie progresses, the women make each other seem redundant -- someone preparing for the end of the world, for example, isn't nearly so interesting as she might have been, because you've already met a crackpot survivalist doing the same thing. And McElwee's unyielding self-pity begins to weigh on you, as what was once a source of comedy becomes a note you've heard before.

The chief problem is that, at 2 1/2 hours, it's about an hour too long. It's as if the very weakness, the retiring politeness, that has made McElwee such an interesting comic character has also made him a crummy editor of his own film -- like the women who mostly reject him, you don't really want to spend your life with him. United by theme rather than story, "Sherman's March" doesn't progress, it only deepens. And at epic length, the film's poor technical quality wears you out.

But at its best, "Sherman's March" has a playfulness that can leave you giddy, and a kind of appropriateness that only an approach so obviously inappropriate can find. It may be the historical apogee of the home movie.

Sherman's March, opening today at the Biograph, is unrated but contains nudity, profanity and sexual themes.

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