By Eric Plaag
“What remains after all have gone, when each generation finds itself in unfamiliar surroundings, when an end comes to that which gives comfort, when what is lost by the father is lost by the son?”
As a professional southern historian whose work turns largely on how memory is crafted and how the landscape informs that sense of memory, I approached General Orders No. 9, the 2010 documentary from writer, director, and cinematographer Robert Persons with a great deal of anticipation. The inevitable comparisons that some have made between General Orders No. 9 and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life — my choice for the best film of 2011, if not the decade — only amplified that anticipation. Judging by the title alone (which references Robert E. Lee’s letter of surrender to his troops at Appomattox), I expected a wondrous visual treatise on the American South, its legacy of decay and destructive transformation in the wake of devastating civil war, and its struggle to maintain its regional identity in spite of its changing landscape.
Having now seen General Orders No. 9, I’d say Persons got it about half right. It is true that the film is a treatise on precisely what I described. Featuring gorgeous, dream-like, but muted images that are quite Malick-like in their conception, Persons spends the first thirty minutes of this seventy-two-minute film in near wordlessness, laying out the visuals of a southern (Georgian, to be specific) natural and cultural landscape whose vestiges of history remain in a perpetual state of decay and whose artifacts and iconography are so odd and entrancing that almost any of us might think that we are glimpsing another world entire rather than the fabled south of our forefathers. During this introduction to his worldview, Persons (who spent eleven years making this film — another Malick-like quirk) only occasionally relies on narration from William Davidson, whose clipped southern drawl reinforces the implication that this is a distinctly southern film about a distinctly southern problem.
Narration may be a misnomer, though. More poetry than documentation, the words Persons has crafted eventually come around to the dilemma that any good southerner knows he or she has faced for some time now and faces still — the obliteration of that cultural past primarily through the transformation of the landscape from one whose features possessed powerful cultural meanings to one now obsessed with disposability, mechanization, blandness, and, ultimately, meaninglessness. Persons’s refrain — “Deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road” — is here replaced in this jolting middle section of the film with a terrible, if perhaps obvious realization: “The interstate does not serve. It possesses.”
My irritation with this turn in the film may be an indication of the underlying frustration I have with General Orders No. 9. At times its poetry and imagery are daunting and powerful and really, really smart. But on many occasions, Persons comes off as the graduate film student a little too in love with both his lens and the sound of his own voice, trafficking in banal revelations that aren’t nearly as meaningful as he’s convinced himself they are. After a commitment of the better part of an hour to a long, elusive, often oblique visual exploration around the margins of meaning, the viewer might be tempted to scream at the screen somewhere just past the midpoint of the film, “I sat through all of that just for this?!?” Moreover, Persons’s focus on the “southernness” of his dilemma — which at times borders on fetishization — actually begs several questions about whether this dilemma is a uniquely southern one at all.
I’m not sure how Persons could fix this problem, or even if he should. Maybe — as I suspect Malick intended with his long opening sequence in Tree of Life — this is Persons’s filtering strategy for getting those who won’t sympathize with his vision out of the theater before he unveils the real punch line. For those who are patient enough, though, what follows this brief exploration of the urban wasteland is a revelation, a complex and rather genius insight that I found worth sticking around for, even if others won’t. Pulling no punches, Persons insists, “You are not a witness to the ruin. You are the ruin. You are to be witnessed. The only response is to refuse, to go to the ruins and sit among them.”
I will not spoil the “surprise,” such as it is, that undergirds the final twenty minutes of General Orders No. 9, nor do I want to suggest through the use of that term that there are fabulous car chases or explosions or tortured plot twists. It’s a documentary, after all. No, it’s a really contemplative, difficult, poetic documentary. But there is a twist of meaning in those final minutes that may sit for quite some time with those (southern?) viewers who spend any portion of their day wondering who they really are, where they really came from, and why the landscapes outside their southern megapoli are shaped the way they are and imbued with meanings that day by day seem a little more forgotten by each succeeding generation. What Persons has crafted is a powerful but deeply flawed film that calls us to action to salvage our collective history, our tenuous connection to the landscape, and the fragile meaning of both — regardless of our race or gender or ethnicity — while we still can. Now. Before it is too late. Sadly, it is a relevant appeal that fails to reach the ears of those who most need to hear it.
Theaters (festival circuit, including Columbia’s Indie Grits Festival on April 21 and 25) and DVD, 3 out of 5 stars