Finding a proper entry point to talk about Robert Persons' "General Orders No. 9" is difficult: the film is so uniquely rich and mysterious that listing its merits almost feels, in a way, belittling. There's often this anxiety in the back of the head when trying to dissect any sort of metaphors or symbols in a movie (in this case, a movie that's basically a string of metaphors/symbols) -- on the one hand we are so moved by the art of it, that we feel obligated to investigate its deeper meanings and various interpretations, but on the other, translating into brief sentences how a densely complicated, all-encompassing piece of cinematic art moved us seems too reductive and simple; it almost feels like a guaranteed injustice. The very best examples in the medium strike us in a way that is inexplicable and unexplainable -- but us avid cinemagoers try our damnedest to explain that feeling, critic or not, sticking the movie under a microscope and jotting down our findings. All that in mind, 'General Orders' is a tiny, magnificent piece so unlike any other movie, so genuinely affecting that it needs to be talked about.
This experimental piece was conceived as a look at the metamorphosis of the South, from its first American inhabitants with their beautiful architecture and its boundless greenery, to its current, seemingly decrepit and inhuman stasis. No interviews, no narration, no title cards -- just mesmerizing shots of the land. There's occasionally a poetic voiceover, describing the process of growth from court house to county to town, with a blank white map accompanying the speech. This geographic diagram slowly fills itself with division lines of roads and state borders while the narrator speaks of the comfortable sense of order the buildings of civilization bring. Though the vocal musings are enchanting, the filmmaker mostly lets landscape do most of the talking, exploring forests, houses, and streams of water with nothing but an ethereal score as the tour guide. Southern art, too, is presented as a relic from an age long gone, with intricate glass figures and sketches of vegetation serving as representations of a society full of insight and feeling.
If the old times were about humanity, the director paints the newly arrived freeways and cityscapes as dehumanizing and repugnant structures, less of an example of "progression" than we think. Still, it'd be too easy for the filmmaker to paint the destruction of nature for our advancement as wholly "bad," and though he clearly laments the overabundance of cold hallways and cruddy buildings (all presented in contrasting black and white stills), they still represent a sort of comforting "order."
Comparisons to other films always help, and though this is an anomalous work, it does share more than one trait with the breath-taking, gorgeous work of Ron Fricke ("Baraka"). Both eschew any sort of narrative and employ montage so pure it would please Aleksandr Dovzhenko even on a bad day. But 'General Orders' is still very much Persons' work and his work alone; few are so enamored by every aspect of an area's geography and its effect on people.
He also puts to use some techniques that should, by all accounts, seem outdated or like flashy tricks, using cross-fades (by now an overused film-school remedy for all mistakes) and a filter that makes everything on screen a colorless, hand-drawn outline. But for first time in what seems like forever, cross-fades feel at home, fluidly combining shots and allowing them to flow naturally into one another, emphasizing the theme of progression and change. Filters can often come off as overly manipulative, cheesy, or just downright gimmicky -- but here, the filmmaker doesn't abuse it, using it sparingly to better highlight the completely man-made design of the freeway, the vehicles, and the cities surrounding them. Of course, that's just one interpretation of many, and it all just goes to show the amount of thought put into something that's usually used because someone thought a similar option in Final Cut Pro "looked dope."
With all of the elegant line readings and dedicated inquiries into Southern landscape, it's quite easy to become overwhelmed by the intellectual scope of the project. You can't give Persons' film a little, you have to give it your all, and the process can be terribly draining. So yes, it will test your patience at points, but 72 minutes is a small price to pay for an unparalleled cinematic experience. The American South is rarely looked at this respectfully, it's often subjected to guileless, condescending jokes rather than being appreciated for its environment or art. But Persons finds that and more, showcasing the pulchritudinous and ever-changing terrain so emotionally that it's tough to not be moved by nearly every frame. [A]