Film Review: General Orders No. 9 (updated with trailer)

To call General Orders No. 9 a documentary is inaccurate. To call it an experimental film is dismissive. To call it an “experimental documentary,” as its own press materials do is reductionist. There are no satisfactory words, no neat genre labels which can be placed upon this film. General Orders No. 9 marks the birth of something wholly new, yet refreshingly familiar, in cinema.

Before we can understand what General Orders No. 9 is not, we must try to grasp what it is. In the simplest terms, it is an exploration of the cultural geography of the American South – director Robert Persons’ home state of Georgia in particular. It explores the impact of the land on men and of men on the land. In a oft-repeated refrain of the voiceover, we are reminded of the evolving mark of man on the landscape: “deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road.”

Through stunning cinematography, at times both epic and intimate, Persons trains a wary eye upon the icons of the South: flowing streams, crumbling headstones in a grassy cemetery, dilapidated barns and farm houses, aging church revival camps, rusty water towers, kudzu-coated gully washes. He opens the film with a close-up examination of collected ephemera from the Southern landscape – the kind of trinkets one might find in the treasure box of a young Southern boy. At least they are the kind one might have found back when Southern boys still played in the woods and collected such treasures: arrowheads and Civil War bullets, bottle caps and bird skulls.

From that small, cryptic beginning grows an ambitious exploration of the changing South. Guiding us on this journey is a voiceover by a narrator of questionable reliability. (Given the use of the trickster Bre’r Rabbit as cover art for the film and the great Southern tradition of unreliable narrators, this should come as no surprise.) But this isn’t your typical Ken Burns film with its didactic recounting of history. Instead, we get a doleful, sonorous recitation that falls somewhere between poetry and eavesdropping on one man’s thoughts. And his thoughts are increasingly dismayed by the intrusion of two great evils upon the South: the interstate and The City.

images courtesy New Rose Window, Inc.

The city in particular here is Atlanta – that behemoth of concrete and sprawl that has progressively eaten half of the state in recent decades. As a resident of Birmingham, I know that hating Atlanta is a favored pastime for many, but Persons’ narrator (and presumably Persons himself) elevate anti-Atlanta sentiment to the level of high art. From the first intrusion of the interstate into the land and into the imagery of the film, one begins to feel a sense of dread. With the first sight of The City, that dreads boils up into an overwhelming dystopian disgust, one that might manifest as anger or resignation, possibly both.

The title of the film comes from the official designation of Robert E. Lee’s terms of surrender. Watching the film, once can’t help but feel that the South has once again surrender, this time not an Army or a Confederacy, but our land and our very souls to the unrelenting march of so-called progress.

However, Persons’ view of The City should not be confused with wholly anti-development. In fact, the film repeatedly reminds us of the beauty of simplistic order: the county as the most elemental place, with the stately courthouse as the center of life in the county, with its weather vane rising high above. “The weather vane is at the center of it all,” the narrator recalls.

images courtesy New Rose Window, Inc.

Persons accomplishes this not through the type of emotional manipulation so common in today’s cinema – with its carefully charted plot points and narrative arcs – but through the simple power of imagery and sound. The unblinking eye of his camera provides a shocking juxtaposition of the lingering beauty of the South-that-was and the sheer ugliness of development run amok. Flowing over it all is a haunting score by Chris Hoke.

Perhaps the greatest revelation in General Orders No. 9 is the counter-cultural reminder that plot is not a necessity. In this age when it seems everyone who doesn’t go to law school goes to film school, where everyone has access to the tools to become a filmmaker and most people under 30 think they are one, when script gurus like Robert McKee hold more sway than the works of Truffaut or Bergman, Persons defied all the trends. A first-time filmmaker, Persons took more than eleven years to hone his craft and refine his vision. The result is the work of a mature artist, all the more refreshing for its uniqueness in a world of rote, hyper-inflated blockbusters and navel-gazing mumblecore indies.

Finally, a word of caution: this film is not for everyone. Some may find it boring or confounding. Persons has stated that he loves cinematic images that appear to be one thing, but are later revealed to be something else – if their true nature is revealed at all. There are a number of shots in the film deliberately created for such effect. On a grander scale, however, there are whole sequences that defy easy explanation. As a whole, the film itself is, like good poetry, open to interpretation.

images courtesy New Rose Window, Inc.

There will be those who, upon reading this review, choose to avoid General Orders No. 9. That’s fine. As for me, I’ll watch it every time I need a reminder of why we created Real Southern Men to begin with – what it is we’re trying to celebrate and by celebrating protect. Then I’ll seek out the nearest county courthouse and gaze upon its weather vane. After all, the weather vane is at the center of it all.

Watch the trailer for General Orders No. 9. 

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