This article contains spoilers for HBO’s The Rehearsal (2022) and Sherman’s March (1986)
Nathan Fielder created something truly and wildly original for HBO with The Rehearsal. The docuseries about rehearsing life events rapidly expanded beyond that initial concept while also folding in on itself like a collapsing star. It’s an incredibly unique watching experience, especially for something on mainstream television. However, outside that realm, many other works have mixed reality with fiction and provided meta-commentary on their own creation.
For example, viewers drew parallels between The Rehearsal and Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche; New York, which itself was heavily inspired by Fellini’s classic 8 1/2. Much of the French New Wave was similarly self-reflexive, along with the oeuvre of the legendary Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, The Act of Killing, David Holzman’s Diary; the list of brilliant meta cinema goes on and on. However, we’re here today to talk about a specific film that feels like it provided a direct stepping stone for Fielder’s show — Sherman’s March.
The mid-eighties documentary from Ross McElwee feels like it’s part of a direct lineage that birthed The Rehearsal. Let’s look back at the surprise Sundance hit and see how its style and substance reemerge in Fielder’s new show.
What Is Sherman’s March?
Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love In the South During an Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation (yes, that’s really the title) was supposed to be a documentary about General Sherman’s infamous destructive march at the tail of the American Civil War. However, due to a breakup right around the time Ross McElwee was starting the project, it quickly becomes a self-portrait of a lonely man desperately trying to find love in an increasingly atomized and paranoid era.
McElwee narrates the film as we see him continually fail to sustain romantic relationships. Unable to even focus on that for a whole movie, Sherman’s March is full of discursions into other subjects like McElwee’s fears about a nuclear holocaust and trying to meet Burt Reynolds. Clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours, Sherman’s March provides a picaresque view of a specific time and place in addition to musing on timeless topics like love, religion, and war. It also happens to be rather funny throughout, with ample amounts of self-deprecating humor and odd interactions.
McElwee and Fielder Adapt
One of the best aspects of both Sherman’s March and The Rehearsal is their ability to adapt to reality and let that shape the project. Instead of trying to create documentaries about a specific concept, Fielder and McElwee are constantly readjusting their focus, both literally and metaphorically, to match the demands of the real world. Both projects had a specific concept at first; The Rehearsal was about rehearsing life events, and Sherman’s March was about, well, General Sherman’s March to the Sea. However, both of these works became about much more than they initially set out to be.
The first episode of The Rehearsal is a self-contained story about one man and his rehearsal, but the next five episodes of the show expand much beyond that limited scope into something far greater. Similarly, Sherman‘s March can feel like it’s about everything, whether it’s nuclear war, romance, or making a documentary. McElwee and Fielder both saw opportunities to make their art much more personal as well, with Fielder joining in on the rehearsals himself and McElwee sharing intimate details about his love life with the viewer. Both pieces could’ve potentially been interesting if they had stuck with what they originally planned on doing, but the results are far richer and more complex because of their creators’ flexibility.
Sherman’s March and The Rehearsal Reflect the Creators
Both Sherman’s March and The Rehearsal act as portraits of their creators, warts and all. These two men have put their insecurities on display, even when it makes them look bad, in hopes of connecting with others. Questioning whether the desire to be seen by an audience is conceited is a core aspect of the two works as well, ironically further deepening the inherent self-involved nature of each of these projects.
Both Nathan Fielder and Ross McElwee are deeply neurotic men who have trouble bonding with others and use the camera to feel more comfortable around people. The question of what is fact versus fiction becomes almost meaningless through a lens, allowing both Fielder and McElwee the freedom both be authentic while still performing heightened versions of themselves. The resulting character studies manage to feel both personal and universal.
All of this makes even further sense when considering that Nathan Fielder’s other project for HBO is the fantastic collaborative effort How to With John Wilson. Wilson’s work is an even clearer descendent of Ross McElwee’s that combines first-person camerawork with awkward yet soul-baring narration. Fielder adds his own flare to the style, however, with The Rehearsal, bringing along the high-concept, prank-show adjacent high jinks of Nathan For You.
While not the only filmmaker to make meta-documentaries, it’s easy to see how Ross McElwee blazed a path forward with Sherman’s March for Fielder and Wilson to follow and expand upon.