General Orders No. 9: Film Review

This naturalist reflection on a violated world is a little too high on its own holiness, but it introduces a new filmmaker with a distinctive sensibility.

First-time writer-director Robert Persons' documentary on the Deep South introduces a new filmmaker with a distinctive sensibility.

NEW YORK – First-time writer-director Robert Persons establishes himself as a maverick personality with his lyrical collage documentary, General Orders No. 9. An elegiac contemplation of the price of progress in the Deep South and its heavy toll on nature, history and community, the film plays more like a moody art installation than a conventional exploration of the clash between environment and urban development.

Screened at a number of second-tier festivals over the past several months, including Slamdance, this is unquestionably an exalted endeavor. It no doubt will find passionate admirers who respond to its haunting poetry, its hushed solemnity and mournful view of the irreversible damage wrought by the contemporary world. Others are likely to reject the film as a ponderous sermon with a too-cramped field of vision. Either way, however, the meticulous, artisanal craftsmanship and conviction Persons brings to his thesis are difficult to dismiss.

Persons’ fascination with maps, patterns, shapes and symmetry informs the work in both structure and content. The principal refrain of the narration, read with somber gravity by William Davidson, is “Deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road.” Also central is the star-and-satellite relationship of courthouse to town to county, with the weather vane at the top of the courthouse clock tower piercing the center of an intersection within many intersections.

Any harmony in that configuration was shattered when the interstates were built, transforming a neat grid into a chaotic web of interconnected veins. “The interstate does not serve, it possesses,” intones Davidson.

Chris Marker appears to be a significant influence, but the spiritual bent in evidence also gives the film a vague tonal kinship to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. There’s a deep personal investment in the material, which Persons reportedly spent 11 years developing. But where Malick considers the soul of man, Persons’ concern is the soul of the land. The film’s specific geographic focus is the triangle of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia, bordered on the east by the Mississippi River and on the west by the Savannah River.

As Davidson’s voice ruminates on the metamorphosis of these tribal lands into sprawling, concrete hubs, Persons’ exquisite camerawork caresses remnants of the past – coins, bones, artifacts, fossils, faded family portraits – or trains its still, serene gaze on gorgeous images of rural tranquility.

Over Chris Hoke’s ambient music, the narration suggests that echoes of the war fought 100 years before this generation was born can still be heard, and Persons’ shots of weathered graveyards reinforce that claim. The title – a reference to Robert E. Lee’s post-surrender address to his troops, issued at Appomattox courthouse – appears to allude to land ceding to industry. But there’s more emotionality than reasoning behind the film’s formula of nature = good/urban development = bad.

The desecration of “a world covered over” and the rumblings of the past as “something pushing up against the surface of things” are emphasized in brooding Atlanta cityscapes, often digitally animated to heighten the sense of invasion by alien elements. Derelict structures and sterile, empty corridors portend a future with no place for humanity. These sequences are fluidly integrated by editor (and producer) Phil Walker to mirror the stately feel of symphonic movements.

Persons expresses his bereavement for communion and belonging – concepts that have grown more abstract as progress marches on. His melancholy film urges us to look at the land rendered invisible by relentless construction; to treasure the remaining patches of wilderness and the totems of those who came before; to reassess the deceptions of modern life and appreciate again the constancy and truth of nature

Those are all noble sentiments, eloquently expressed. But despite the film’s beauty, such an earnestly romantic view of a world gone wrong needs to take a moment to weigh the gains against the losses. Without that balance, its wounded sanctification seems simplistic.

Production: New Rose Window
Producer/editor: Phil Walker
Executive producer: Robert Persons
Music: Chris Hoke
Narrator: William Davidson
Map animation motion graphics: Superlux
3D animation: Rival Industries
No rating; 72 minutes