October 06, 1986 12:00 PM

Put Ross McElwee down as the year’s most offbeat success story. In 1981 McElwee, who teaches filmmaking at Harvard, headed for his native North Carolina with a camera, a microphone and a $9,000 grant. His mission: to document how the scars of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Civil War pillage can still be felt in the South. Just before filming started, McElwee’s girlfriend broke up with him. McElwee, now 39, was heartbroken, but he still had his film equipment and his grant, so he set out to retrace Sherman’s steps, sort of, while recording his own romantic efforts.

The result is Sherman’s March, a very funny film that is less about the General’s infamous march to the sea than it is about McElwee’s misadventures among the antibelles of the New South. Among them: Pat, an actress whose burning desire is to meet Burt Reynolds; Wini, a linguist who lives alone in a tree house; Deedee, a Mormon whose dowry includes a fallout shelter, and Claudia, a survivalist whose friends are building tennis courts designed to outlast the nuclear holocaust. Occasionally McElwee turns the camera on himself—often in bed, alone and unhappily so—and delivers the kind of deadpan soliloquies that have led one critic to call him the “tar heel Woody Allen.”

McElwee professes to be slightly surprised by the film’s reception, particularly in his family. “My father is a surgeon, a very dignified man,” says the tweedy, quiet-spoken McElwee. “I thought he would want to have me committed.” Instead, after the Boston premiere, the elder McElwee told his son, “I never knew you were so funny.” Still, McElwee ended the filming very much unattached. But when Sherman’s March was in post-production, his growing reputation as a maker of eclectic films brought a call from Marilyn Levine, 37, an aspiring documentarian who’d worked as a newspaper reporter in North Carolina. The two have been collaborators ever since, and McElwee isn’t spending his nights alone talking to a camera anymore.

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