General Orders No. 9
Dir: Robert Persons
“Deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road.” This particular phrasing is used multiple times in the new film General Orders No. 9, intoned with grizzled sagacity by narrator William Davidson. It evokes the gradual evolution of a portion of the American South, transformed from a place of great wildness to one in which the signposts of humanity took greater and greater prominence. Director Robert Persons begins by citing a wide piece of territory, designated on the east by the Savannah River and on the west by the mighty Mississippi. Eventually, he seems to hone in on one county in Georgia as his symptomatic example of the insidious encroachment of toxic progress.
Persons is enraptured by nature in a way that’s reminiscent of Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick, but he’s also fascinated by the man-made intruders, structures that wear the erosion of neglect. These are not the towers of plastic and steel that houses all manner of commerce, but the little stone and wooden constructs that nestle in the woods and along desolate paved roads. These buildings were homes and churches, granaries and mills. They are emblems of a bygone era that remain stubbornly in place, like man’s thumbprint upon the otherwise untamed greenery.
The camera luxuriates on the images of nature and fabrication coexisting in an uneasy pact. Persons does double duty as director of photography, and he captures these chunks of backwoods wonder with sharp, fulsome care. He crafts indelible images from an abandoned house with books rotting off its shelves like decayed teeth or a structure straining near collapse, as if the collected weight of the natural world has pressed down heavily upon it, nearly besting it once and for all. The film presents these places, these daydreams of a crumbling past, with an almost accidental curiosity, as if the camera had merely stumbled upon them during an idle walk in the woods. It can be hard to discern a plan behind the assembled images. There is simply observation and then the act of quietly moving along.
General Orders No. 9 is properly designated a documentary, although that seems an inadequate term. The narration, for example, refrains from providing any specific information, opting instead for a sort of forlorn poetry that stirs sensations rather than offers any concrete ideas. The damnable diversion of the interstate highway system is described by noting, “It has the power to make the land invisible to our attention” and the narrator at one point asserts “The Lord loves a broken spirit; pray that we are well-broken.” This is handsome writing, but there’s also a lot of overgrowth obscuring the main thesis of the film. Certainly, this is nonfiction, but technically so are any film’s scenes of nature, at least those bereft of CGI enhancements. Persons doesn’t introduce an imagined story into his footage, but he equally avoids any real assemblage of fact. The film eschews enough conventions of the documentary form that it begins to feel more like an art piece, something that gets projected on a museum wall for patrons to ponder over. It has a sort-of narrative as it takes a journey from trail to road and beyond, but it also exists far enough outside of any conventions and expected structure to suggest an abdication of the journalistic imperatives of documentary filmmaking. The film is its own unique creation, a quality that is both its allure and its curse.
Deliberately presented with an almost hypnotic quality, moving from image to image with very little connective tissue between, the movie constantly threatens to become bogged down in its own ponderous nature. It amasses rather than proceeds, occasionally returning to certain shreds of narration like a song looping back to its chorus. It’s not reemphasizing these points as much as simply restating them, leaning on the rhythm first and any accompanying ideas second. The film can feel adrift, waiting for the haze to lift to find a pathway back to cogent points.
There are memorable images, to be sure. When Persons delivers his condemnation of the lifelessness of sprawling urbanity, he shoots an empty parking garage in black and white, emphasizing its overwhelming nothingness, a statement of industrial negation that is uglier that the enormous stains on the bleak, gray walls. There’s also a teeming highway rendered in animation of spare, half-finished lines, like an Etch A Sketch picture that Persons wants to shake into oblivion. There’s some cheating going on – if he chose to, Persons could easily depict urban environments as places bustling with color and life – but it is also a part of the film that admirably makes it arguments visually. Narration is present, but it recedes to the background, bettered by the mere contrast of hard concrete against the vivid terrain it replaced. Persons doesn’t need to emphasize this by cutting back to the inviting vegetation. The memory of it from earlier in the film is still clear, the natural world still holding on at the end of byways that stretch out far from the city.
General Orders No. 9 is a meditation on the ragged wilds upon which society imposes structures and grids. Unlike most efforts that are described as meditations, this film truly aspires to reach a relaxed, dreamlike state, happily lost in some sort of mental morass. The film is about, as the narration puts it, “The land and what we’ve added to it.” In its consideration of the land, the film practically goes grooving off into the air, driven aloft by its ethereal philosophizing.
by Dan Seeger