Thursday, June 23, 2011

SEE THIS MOVIE: General Orders No. 9

A couple of years ago, while covering Sundance, I got an email from a friend, an industry professional and festival regular, who implored me to see an obscure film called General Orders No. 9 that was playing at Slamdance. He said it was the best movie he’d seen at Park City in all the (many) years he’d been coming there. It had one final screening on my last day in town, so after I checked out of my hotel I dutifully trudged over to Main Street. I’d gotten maybe an hour of sleep the night before (thanks to midnight screenings and writing deadlines) so I wasn’t in the best of moods when I settled in for what turned out to be a difficult, dense experimental documentary-cum-essay film. And yet this bewildering fantasia -- of almost abstracted still lives, transcendent landscapes, and incantatory narration -- enthralled me. When its director Robert Persons – a quiet, 40-something-ish fellow who’d never made a film before in his life and looked pretty uncomfortable – took the stage, my hand immediately went up for the first question: “Who the hell are you?” I asked. He wouldn’t answer me.

General Orders No. 9 (which opens at the reRun Theater in Brooklyn tomorrow) provoked my question, but it could just as well have served as his answer. It begins with a hand quietly contemplating objects from the past – the skull of a bird, a coin, something that looks like a bullet, a single die -- and then drifts into a deeply personal rumination on community and place, and how they have become disjointed in the modern world. Persons, a Georgia native, initially presents a land (complete with shots of antique maps) in which nature bends methodically and gently towards a kind of social organization (“Deer trail, becomes Indian trail, becomes county road”). This world still has roots, it is still definably a place, with a center: All the roads lead to (or, perhaps, “emanate from”) a courthouse, with a bell tower, topped by a weather vane – a geographic and symbolic locus that nicely incorporates the notion of community, justice, and the divine.

Later, however, that sense of order is overwhelmed – uprooted and covered – by the coming of the interstate and by the rudderless onslaught of urbanization and “progress.” We find ourselves in the city, which has no center and is no real place. (“It’s a thing. It has none of the marks of a place, but all the marks of a machine.”) The orderly, almost soothing progression of counties and towns on the map of Georgia becomes, as it spreads out across a map of the U.S., a nightmarish contagion of jigsaw-puzzle-like fragmentation. What once were carefully drawn boundaries now look like a thousand cracks across a nation made of glass.

This is rapturously beautiful filmmaking, powered by a kind of understated confidence that rivets you to your seat. But what is it about? The title is a reference to Robert E. Lee’s final address to his troops at Appomattox, but I wouldn’t peg Persons as a nostalgist. (Some would, however. Go here to read Joseph Jon Lanthier’s lucid, in-depth, and rather negative review of the film.) This isn’t a lament for the Old South, or even really for The Way Things Used To Be. There’s an abstractness to the imagery and to the discourse that suggests Persons is talking about a symbolic passing. That said, General Orders feels like a deeply conservative film, in the sense that T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is a conservative poem: It yearns for absolutes whose absences modernity makes palpable, even if those absolutes are imaginary, mythic ones. The film's tendency to avoid humans comes across as an attempt not to seal itself off from experience, but to make its imagery even more subjective: “You are not a witness to the ruin. You are the ruin. You are to be witnessed.”

That’s also the key difference between Persons and Terrence Malick, to whose films a number of folks have compared General Orders No. 9. The reasons for the comparison are obvious – the same spiritual overtones, the same poetically-infused narration, etc. But while the two artists do share surface similarities, Malick’s work – at least in the later films – carries a certain moral force as his characters look to become good again in the world. As such his films often teem with scenes of human and natural wonder: Something has been lost, is forever being lost, but it’s also here with us, ever-present if we choose to embrace it once again. Persons’s lament -- his surrender – doesn’t feel like a search. Perhaps because he understands the thing he seeks might never have been there in the first place.


  1. Thanks for the linkage! And great piece. I like, particularly, the connection to TS Eliot, whose conservative and anti-Semitism would years later spiral out of hand but that with "The Waste Land" facilitated a deeply personal wailing against spiritual deficiency. I have to protest your glossing of my objections, however. I agree that Persons is mourning the ineffable, perhaps even the fictitious--and I sense that his discursive dirge is MEANT to include as many dead ends and asymmetries as it does. I also don't necessarily dislike the fact that Persons' perplexity is rooted in fixations with, and likely misunderstandings of, bygone eras.

    What I still fail to understand is how this elusive essence he's circumnavigating, and defining only by absence, palpably affects "people" in a sense any more general or romantic than "big cities are filthy and anonymizing, and lack character". You dote a lot on his elegant maps, but the film's got a lot more specific content culled from both rural areas and urbanity that doesn't make sense when juxtaposed. The "soulless" CGI apartments are just as symmetrical as his church-cum-"symbolic locus". What of it? Why does a (color-photographed) tree have more aesthetic worth than an (black and white-photographed - SUBTLE!) overpass? You could argue that this is Persons' way of seeing the world, and that as a cinematic representation of his apprehensive pensiveness it succeeds. What worries me more than county roads and interstates, however, is the failure of "artists" like Persons to see individuals as qualitatively baroque--to him they're simply a deleterious social trend or cartographical cancer (as you quoted, we "are the ruin"). For all his talk about the soul, there are simply no humans - the collective carriers of whatever ineffable quality he's getting at - in his viewpoint, other than faceless and defenseless ones.

    I haven't seen anyone else address his inclusion of the white-masked African-American protestors, but I'd be curious for your take on that scene. Persons seems to have re-contextualized those vacant visages as part of his nondescript futurescape. I can get behind the socio-political complexity the photographs conjure, to a point, but the notion that blank-enings of the self are ALL to be taken as one planate spiritual affront is both aesthetically and morally nocuous.

  2. RE: The latter point. I don't know if it's so much about blankening as it is about denying the self. I thought the thing about those symmetric apartments (are we talking about that weird CGI Brazil homage?) was that you never knew where you were in them. That scene had a really dizzying effect on me, and I assume that's what Persons was going for. In that sense, the African-Americans with the white masks was, I think, a similar image of disorientation. I didn't think of it as a particularly loaded image, I have to say -- more an aesthetically unsettling one, in that you just couldn't tell who these people were.

    I want to write more, but I'm actually hoping to see the film again soon, so I may wait until after I've done that.