07 June 2008

Not a Victory March

Sherman's March is not all about William Tecumseh Sherman (better to focus on the after the colon part of the title: "A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons"). It is a fantastic tramp through southern belles instead, taking a few metaphorical shots of Civil War battlegrounds on the way. Perhaps the unmatchable early peak is filmmaker Ross McElwee's new friend Pam doing her cellulite exercises. But later we have the equally memorably Charlene, telling director Ross to push right through the bush (pubic or leafy) to get into the romantic heart of matters. And she is right, at least sometimes, about people bluffing each other until they are actually together for long enough to approximate love. So many great pairs of sunglasses in between. 1985 was a great time for the big glasses, so much hidden meaning it seems in all the strange brown and pink curves of the frames. Of all the people he meets probably the one I would have fallen for the fastest was the linguist out there in the wild with the ants and mosquitoes and ticks and cone-headed bloodsuckers. She could really speak with ease and wisdom about why it is that linguistics and sex work so well together as she ran her laundry through a hand crank.

What I’ve felt more and more that this film is a bizarre but obvious match for WTT All Time Favorite Contempt in terms of core theme. McElwee strikes me as a Michel Piccoli (Paul Javal) figure—just as the latter reduces Homer’s Iliad to a banal (but somewhat plausible) tale of marital unrest to reflect his own feelings of betrayal and loss, the latter takes the Civil War story mostly out of his film and recasts Sherman’s March to the Sea as an allegory of his personal battles with absent lovers. This happens in the way that all our lives now must become epics, that our pain is as important as Achilles’, as Sherman’s. I’ll admit that visually Sherman’s March and Contempt don’t exactly match—handheld 80’s documentary grain is different from Coutard 60’s Cinemascope lushness. Standing outside a Holiday Inn for eight hours with a Burt Reynolds look-alike is different from Bardot sunbathing nude atop Casa Malaparte with a book covering her ass.

There are, I’d like to mention though, prominent water nymphs in both films.

Thinking on the pair I feel the similar wire of postmodern anguish acutely—I wake with the same questions, wanting to make the same art, asking why, why not this love?

(If I’ve already taken it to Godard, why not just step on to Fitzgerald? Writing (when he can) Tender Is the Night, wandering the trees behind La Paix, putting every effort yet again towards a love he knows to be impossible, the green light never quite gone. And so he finishes, after ten years, his “confession of faith,” his most beautiful record of devastation.)

I’ll end on the most unbearable scene of attempted reconciliation in Sherman's March: with his lawyer ex-girlfriend, McElwee for the first (and, for me, only) time pushes us into a purely discomforting area, asking repeatedly why she is with her boyfriend and not him. She pulls back from McElwee across the table, her eyes stutter all over the horizon, she asks for the camera to be turned off (perhaps too scared to admit that she is uncontrollably aroused by her boyfriend’s impressive array of life-sized cast models of zoo animals). The person with whom I watched Sherman’s March said, exasperated, “She doesn’t love you, she doesn’t love you,” while I thought that doesn’t mean he can ever stop asking. I can't get enough of what McElwee does here—he puts a camera on his shoulder and asks the world to love and need him as he loves and needs all these people, places and stretches.