360 Staff Pick: General Orders No. 9

Blog: 10.03.11

Monday, October 03, 2011 - 12:00 PM

“General Orders No. 9” was the document in which Robert E. Lee ordered his troops to surrender to Ulysses S. Grant.  A film of the same name by Robert Persons never refers to this document or to the Civil War itself, which is strange.  There is a lot about this film — touring art house theaters around the US — that is strange, and troubling, and haunting, and beautiful.  In this rare case, “visionary” is not too strong word. 

General Orders No. 9 is described as an experimental documentary.  It’s a highly impressionistic montage of stills, film, artifacts, and maps of the South — all or mostly shot in a single county in Georgia.  It combines the method of 1982’s trippy Koyannisqatsi, the mood of Terrence Malick, and the themes of the 1930s Southern Agrarian writers. 

Robert Persons is a first-time filmmaker and writer who has been making this movie for most of his adult life.  His narration borrows its portentous style, Persons told me, from sources like The Plow That Broke the Plains, a 1930s Dust Bowl documentary; he also cites the biblical archaicism of early Cormac McCarthy.  It asks questions more than states facts: “What remains ... when what is lost to the father is lost by the son?”  “What will the new map look like?”  Persons’ text (read by another writer, William Davidson) lands somewhere between an essay and a long poem, circuitous and repetitive.  But eventually he lands his point: “We don’t want to live this way.”

Trailer: General Orders No. 9

For all its romanticism and fatalism, General Orders is as tendentious as the protest docs of Michael Moore.  It’s a cry against change: against industrialization, against cities, against paving, against sprawl, against relocating, against air conditioning.  One of its refrains is “Deer trail becomes Indian trail, becomes county road.”  All human settlement is a blight here, but the small town is a stable social order.  The City, by contrast, appears here as a dehumanizing place of isolation and falsehood: of sin. 

Even for an environmentalist, though, this rejection of cities is all wrong.  We all (most of us) love nature, but we’ve got to live somewhere, and most of us don’t favor off-grid cabins.  (Neither does the digitally savvy filmmaker Persons.)  Cities, in their density and efficiency, are the most viable way we know to handle growth.  The alternative is an infinity of sprawl, concreting Persons’ beloved land with strip malls and highway cloverleafs. 

There’s another problem here that I couldn’t stop thinking about.  To see dehumanization as the product of the big city is to ignore history willfully.  America’s original sin of dehumanization was perpetrated not in big cities, primarily, but in rural areas: on the frontier where Indians were dispossessed and driven toward extinction; and on the plantations, where Africans were brutalized as chattel.  But slavery, like the war that ended it, is invisible in Robert Persons’ paean to the old South: the enemy is air conditioning. 

Yet as poetry, General Orders No. 9 had me from the word go.  Watching it was like a dream in which I wanted to speak up and disagree but instead kept nodding “yes, yes.”  Its vague, unsettled argument turns out to be the source of its power: if you think anything, almost anything, is wrong with the way we live or the world we live in, you may find yourself nodding along too.  When I left a dark theater into the chaos of rush-hour Manhattan, I saw the city as the film does — the streams of people and their cars seemed like the pulleys of some infernal machine.  It was a hit in the gut.  Turns out I don’t want to live this way, either.

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