Georgia on My Mind

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.

THIS IMAGE FIRST ATTRACTED ME TO THE FILM, PROBABLY BECAUSE I HAVE A CIVIL WAR BULLET, TOO.

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.

THE WEATHER VANE ON TOP OF THE COURTHOUSE

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.

AWARD-WINNING CINEMATOGRAPHY

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.

EVIDENCE OF THE PAST HAUNTS THE IMAGERY

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.

18 Responses Georgia on My Mind
Posted By debbe : October 10, 2011 2:33 pm

not only does this sound like a lovely film, but your writing is fabulous

Posted By debbe : October 10, 2011 2:33 pm

not only does this sound like a lovely film, but your writing is fabulous

Posted By suzidoll : October 10, 2011 3:23 pm

Debbe: Thanks for the compliment. It’s much appreciated. I think I write better when the film moves me.

Posted By suzidoll : October 10, 2011 3:23 pm

Debbe: Thanks for the compliment. It’s much appreciated. I think I write better when the film moves me.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 10, 2011 8:44 pm

As a Southerner who lives in the suburbs, I lament the loss and lack of nearby rural green spaces and the crapification of so many formerly lovely rural areas by abandoned vehicles and mobile home parks and the proliferation of Wal-Marts.

My parents grew up in a rural South that had open fields and heavily wooded areas. I long for those days when the open fields and wooded areas outnumbered the suburban traps of ugly, cookie-cutter, stucco homes with treeless yards and Nazi homeowners’ associations that are so common in my area. I know there is actually a lot more uninhabited, rural green space than we realize in this country, but it’s not around here.

I look forward to the possibility of seeing this documentary of my friendly neighbor state to the north. Thank you for drawing my attention to it.

Posted By dukeroberts : October 10, 2011 8:44 pm

As a Southerner who lives in the suburbs, I lament the loss and lack of nearby rural green spaces and the crapification of so many formerly lovely rural areas by abandoned vehicles and mobile home parks and the proliferation of Wal-Marts.

My parents grew up in a rural South that had open fields and heavily wooded areas. I long for those days when the open fields and wooded areas outnumbered the suburban traps of ugly, cookie-cutter, stucco homes with treeless yards and Nazi homeowners’ associations that are so common in my area. I know there is actually a lot more uninhabited, rural green space than we realize in this country, but it’s not around here.

I look forward to the possibility of seeing this documentary of my friendly neighbor state to the north. Thank you for drawing my attention to it.

Posted By Ellen Rice : October 10, 2011 11:50 pm

My husband grew up in Georgia is deaf. His parents grew up in Forest Park, GA where his father used to work at FAA. Things has change so much. Unbelievable. Airport is one the biggest things that people do not like to hear noise sounds but doesn’t bother the deaf people. NO it did not because we could not hear any sounds. Everything is so beautiful outside and Life is beautiful if we could change the world today. We would have better things in Georgia and children are growing up so fast.Is nice to know having filming and movie in Georgia. People love stories. History can bring anyone a good life.People loves stories. Life is so short but beauty is really the main thing about filming and movies it is history!!!

Posted By Ellen Rice : October 10, 2011 11:50 pm

My husband grew up in Georgia is deaf. His parents grew up in Forest Park, GA where his father used to work at FAA. Things has change so much. Unbelievable. Airport is one the biggest things that people do not like to hear noise sounds but doesn’t bother the deaf people. NO it did not because we could not hear any sounds. Everything is so beautiful outside and Life is beautiful if we could change the world today. We would have better things in Georgia and children are growing up so fast.Is nice to know having filming and movie in Georgia. People love stories. History can bring anyone a good life.People loves stories. Life is so short but beauty is really the main thing about filming and movies it is history!!!

Posted By Jenni : October 11, 2011 1:34 pm

We used to live near Augusta,GA, 23 years ago. Husband’s job changed,and we moved to St. Louis. We lived there for 17 years. A lay off, and a new job and another move have us living 2 hours west of St. Louis. We are living 5 min. outside of a small city’s limits, on 5 acres of a lovely, oak tree strewn yard, cattle ranches around us. Our kids are enjoying the walks on country roads, the wildlife we’ve seen, plus the cattle. Life out here in rural MO does feel slower paced and relaxed. I remember a study that I heard reported on the radio this summer, those that live in the country are less stressed than those who live in cities. I believe that study is spot-on! There are trade offs, as museums, malls, and sporting events are now 2 hours away, but the peaceful living out here is very nice.

Suzi, where does the term General Orders No. 9 come from? Also, the small city we live near is home to a large engineering and science university for the state of MO, and I just discovered they show free movies on Thursday nights. I intend to find out if this film will be on their roster for this school year.

Posted By Jenni : October 11, 2011 1:34 pm

We used to live near Augusta,GA, 23 years ago. Husband’s job changed,and we moved to St. Louis. We lived there for 17 years. A lay off, and a new job and another move have us living 2 hours west of St. Louis. We are living 5 min. outside of a small city’s limits, on 5 acres of a lovely, oak tree strewn yard, cattle ranches around us. Our kids are enjoying the walks on country roads, the wildlife we’ve seen, plus the cattle. Life out here in rural MO does feel slower paced and relaxed. I remember a study that I heard reported on the radio this summer, those that live in the country are less stressed than those who live in cities. I believe that study is spot-on! There are trade offs, as museums, malls, and sporting events are now 2 hours away, but the peaceful living out here is very nice.

Suzi, where does the term General Orders No. 9 come from? Also, the small city we live near is home to a large engineering and science university for the state of MO, and I just discovered they show free movies on Thursday nights. I intend to find out if this film will be on their roster for this school year.

Posted By suzidoll : October 11, 2011 2:33 pm

Jenni: The title comes from the name of Robert E. Lee’s farewell address to this troops after the surrender. It was a military address or general order for all troops.

That’s great that the university shows movies. A college film program was how I learned a lot about different types of movies.

Posted By suzidoll : October 11, 2011 2:33 pm

Jenni: The title comes from the name of Robert E. Lee’s farewell address to this troops after the surrender. It was a military address or general order for all troops.

That’s great that the university shows movies. A college film program was how I learned a lot about different types of movies.

Posted By Juana Maria : October 11, 2011 4:28 pm

I don’t know what the image on the front of this article is about. I thought maybe it was Harvey, Jimmy Stewart’s imaginary friend.

Posted By Juana Maria : October 11, 2011 4:28 pm

I don’t know what the image on the front of this article is about. I thought maybe it was Harvey, Jimmy Stewart’s imaginary friend.

Posted By suzidoll : October 11, 2011 6:28 pm

Juana Maria: There aren’t very many movies about rabbits, so I am not surprised that you were reminded of HARVEY. Actually, I am not sure who the rabbit is, but I suspect it is Br’er Rabbit, a character in Southern folk tales. This movie is about the South, which is probably why he is on the poster.

Posted By suzidoll : October 11, 2011 6:28 pm

Juana Maria: There aren’t very many movies about rabbits, so I am not surprised that you were reminded of HARVEY. Actually, I am not sure who the rabbit is, but I suspect it is Br’er Rabbit, a character in Southern folk tales. This movie is about the South, which is probably why he is on the poster.

Posted By Therese : October 17, 2011 1:23 pm

Great review, Suzi. I’m looking forward to watching the film.

Posted By Therese : October 17, 2011 1:23 pm

Great review, Suzi. I’m looking forward to watching the film.

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