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Picks and Pans Review: Sherman's March

updated 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Calling Sherman's March a home movie is a bit like labeling Proust a diarist. Still, the most enchanting moments in Ross McElwee's "nonfiction film" are so mundane and idiosyncratic that you're surprised—then delighted—to see them outside the confines of a family rec room. Pat, a real-life effervescent ingenue, demonstrates her cellulite exercises; Deedee shyly unveils the powdered milk she's stockpiling for Armageddon; Wini looks up from milking the cow in her island hideaway to declare that "the only things that really matter are sex and linguistics." Such scenes end up mixed with readings from Gen. William Sherman's Civil War diaries, monologues on nuclear war and the odd glimpse of Burt Reynolds. The film began in 1981 when McElwee—an alumnus of the MIT graduate film program—set out to retrace Sherman's Civil War devastation of the South. En route to his native North Carolina, McElwee, then 33, was jilted by his girlfriend. He began to brood about the state of his love life. Then he began to film it. Sherman had to take a supporting role in McElwee's awkward encounters with new women and pensive postmortems with former lovers. Despite the potential for Bergman-style psychodrama, this mission never became so earnest that McElwee couldn't detour off into such sideshows as the mountain retreat of some rock-ribbed survivalists. ("What we're trying to do here," one member explains, "is get back to Little House on the Prairie.") Car breakdowns, history lessons and histrionics are all layered in with a novelist's skill and an unflagging sense of humor. While it has few obvious laugh points, Sherman's March generates a low chuckle throughout its 2½-hour length. It is a sound that both recognizes the familiarity of the all-American material and marvels that anyone had the wit, patience and humanity to capture it on film. (Not rated)

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