In Reveries Of The Solitary Walker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau reflects on the philosophical possibilities of rowing a boat out to the middle of a lake and stretching out on its bottom, eyes turned up to the sky. He writes, "I let myself float slowly hither and thither as the water listed, sometimes for hours together, plunged in a thousand delicious musings..."
If ever a movie fit that description, it would be Ross McElwee's groundbreaking 1986 documentary Sherman's March, a loping, idiosyncratic reverie through history and the heart, loosely conjoined by the camera lens. McElwee began the film with the idea of tracing General Sherman's decisive campaign through the South, showing how its devastations still linger psychically, if not visibly. But McElwee quickly gets sidetracked: Fresh off a tough breakup, he cuts his own swath of destruction from Georgia to the Carolinas, trying to account for his romantic failures as he courts an eclectic array of Southern belles. At 155 minutes, the film moves intuitively from one detour to another, floating hither and thither, but its constant digressions have the spirit of a great intellectual adventure. The subtitle says it all: "A Meditation On The Possibility Of Romantic Love In The South During An Era Of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation."
An ideal model for the blogging generation, Sherman's March integrates the personal and the universal without seeming narcissistic, which is more than can be said of the majority of autobiographical documentaries produced in its wake. In a brief interview included on the DVD, McElwee (Time Indefinite, Bright Leaves) states a simple desire to "find the extraordinary in the ordinary," and this sort of curiosity makes the film's casual journey enchanting. Approaching middle age with dim romantic prospects, McElwee trains his phallic camera on several women: a gorgeous would-be actress who performs mesmerizing "cellulite exercises," a survivalist who retreats to an anti-government mountain shelter, a linguist living in a bug-infested island bog, a Mormon singer who wants to "bring the priesthood" into her home, and a wild-coiffed bar singer.
While McElwee still conducts an inquiry into General Sherman's landmarks and letters, nothing in Sherman's March seems falsely predigested, as if he really knew where he was going all along. Shooting without a set itinerary risks (and occasionally finds) dead ends, but McElwee follows his keen impulses through the narrative like a trail of breadcrumbs, trusting his ability to get interesting people to open up for the camera. At the end of this winding road, he somehow arrives at his hoped-for destination, capturing an evocative picture of Southern life a century after Sherman left his mark.