Posted by Susan Doll on October 10, 2011
Every week I seem to have a conversation with someone about the rapid passage of time. Where did the summer go? The month of September? This week? Enjoying anything at a leisurely pace or taking time to ensure that a task is well done have become casualties of our fast-paced, urbanized lifestyles: The immediate delivery of services, information, and goods is more important than their quality; overworked employees in a downsized job market multi-task and work overtime to compensate for the loss of coworkers. Taking eleven years to create and produce a film seems out of sync in the new millennium and the new economy, but then everything about Robert Persons’ General Orders No. 9 goes against the grain of our contemporary world.
General Orders No. 9 is almost impossible to describe and categorize, which makes it difficult to market—a strike against it, according to conventional wisdom. Various reviewers have described it as “a tone poem,” “an experimental documentary,” and “an essay film.” None of those phrases sound particularly inviting; neither do they adequately convey what General Orders No. 9 is about. Not that I blame the reviewers. I doubt if anything I come up with is going to do justice to the film either.
General Orders No. 9 combines beautiful cinematography, moving narration, and haunting music with maps, historic photos, and illustrations to track the evolution of the state of Georgia from a natural land to an urbanized center. In a soft Southern accent, narrator William Davidson repeats, “Indian land becomes English land becomes American land. . . Deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road. . . . ,” poetically charting the course of Georgia’s history. But, this is not a History-Channel-style chronicle in which a litany of facts and a healthy dose of reenactments make you acutely aware that 400 years have been collapsed into one hour. It’s a personal interpretation of the meaning of history, treating the past as a timeless interlude. As the narrator notes, this past is a world unto itself, or “a world entire,” not a chronological interpretation of history that stumbles over itself to get to the next era.
In this evocative portrait of one part of Georgia, a small town is established where the Indian trails cross, like the “spokes of a wheel.” In the center of the town is a courthouse and atop the courthouse is a weather vane. The center of town with its courthouse and weather vane puts an order to this world, but it does not dominate it or destroy it: “We can see the shape of the land; we can see the weather unfold.” The long shots of people-less landscapes, carefully connected by perfectly timed dissolves, are filled with beautifully composed imagery. The cinematography and narration work cumulatively to create a palpable longing for this “world entire” that will make you ache. Of course, “There was a war here 100 years ago,” and certain images allude to it—an old Civil War-era bullet, remnants of antebellum architecture, a cemetery—but, after the war, the mysteries of nature continued to unfold and people still cleaved to the land. Time unfolds differently in this “world entire,” and for the duration of the film, I was temporarily relieved from the frantic pace of my too-hectic life.
This strange and hallucinatory history does move forward into our modern world. Because of our temporary submersion into a poetically depicted past, the present comes as a startling and unwelcome intrusion—and then as an onslaught of contemporary eyesores. Long shots of highways appear onscreen as the narrator remarks, “An interstate does not serve, it possesses. It has the power to make the land invisible.” Images of decaying industrial parks, glass and concrete jungles, and monotonous office-building interiors have destroyed the shape of the land, obscuring or disguising it. Later, shots of billboards, interstates, and deforestation reveal the obvious process of destruction, though the poetic narration will never make that connection straightforward for you—that’s a technique for another style documentary.
The imagery, rhythms, music, and narration of the film evoke, suggest, and conjure but don’t culminate in one single idea or purpose. General Orders No. 9 is one of those films that will affect audiences differently, depending on the background and experiences of the viewers. City dwellers who love the fast pace, the sophisticated cultural opportunities, and the anonymity of the metropolis may not understand Persons’ assertion that “The city is not a place. It’s a thing. It has none of the marks of a place. But all those of a machine.” I suspect this film will resonate more deeply with those from the South or from rural, agrarian communities, who understand the power of the land to define individuals and evoke the spirituality of nature. (It won the top prize at the Soul of Southern Film Indie Festival in Memphis.) And, many Southerners, as well as history buffs, will likely recognize the title: General Order #9 was General Robert E. Lee’s farewell to his troops after the Civil War. I do not presume to directly interpret the meaning of the title in relation to the film, but it might have something to do with Lee’s phrase “compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources.” Persons’ “world entire” has surrendered to the overwhelming numbers and resources of the modern age.
The film’s reverence for “the shape of the land” reminded me of my father, and other members of my family, who would never consider leaving the hills of West Virginia, despite the state’s myriad problems, because the land, the sky, and the creeks and runs are a part of them. While I am too far removed to feel the same, I recognize that this is a virtue compared to city dwellers I know who have never walked land that they owned—not a yard, but land.
No matter the personal response, General Orders No. 9 offers a completely different cinematic experience from mainstream narrative or documentary filmmaking. Spiritual in tone, mystical in atmosphere, and abstract in structure, it is a lyrical essay film that evokes ideas and provokes emotions. The combination of lyrical imagery and poetic narration reminded me of two documentaries from the Depression era by Pare Lorentz, The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River, the latter among my favorite nonfiction films of all time.
General Orders No. 9 deserved its win for Best Cinematography at the Slamdance Festival, because it looks like it was shot on film. However, it was photographed by Persons using a Sony DSR-570 WSL Flash 1, though he claims his secret was a terrific Canon lens. Persons is a self-taught filmmaker with a background in writing and fine art. He pondered on the film for about five years before engaging the help of video and motion graphics professionals who were excited to work on something that was purely creative. Six years later, General Orders No. 9 was completed.
I saw General Orders No. 9 at Facets in Chicago, were I work, because our intrepid programmer Charles Coleman manages to ferret out cinematic gems on an ever-decreasing budget. Next, it plays Nashville at the Belcourt on October 12 and 13, and then the Doc Fest in San Francisco, October 15-18. If a town or city near you hosts a film festival, check the schedule for this film. It’s worth it to see it on a big screen. And, don’t expect to see it on DVD. For some reason, people assume that if they don’t see a film—any film—in the theater, then they can catch it on DVD. General Orders No. 9 is not available on DVD, though you can preorder it here. Nor, is it available on Netflix and may never be. According to some indie filmmakers and distributors, as reported in Indiewire magazine, Netflix has changed its buying metric in the last year or so, focusing on films that can sustain hundreds of units, whereas before they would order small amounts of an obscure title. In the case of unknown films, like General Orders No. 9, Netflix will make them available only if customers exhibit interest in them. Please put this film in your queues so that it can be one of the lucky ones.
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