I watched General Orders No. 9 when it played at the Grand Illusion Cinema about 2 weeks ago. I love documentaries — and especially documentaries that do something a little more than just the standard talking heads montage — so naturally i was intrigued by the capsule summary:
Awarded for its visionary cinematography, General Orders No. 9 breaks from the constraints of the documentary form as it contemplates the signs of loss and change in the American South. The stunning culmination of over eleven years’ work from first time writer-director Robert Persons, General Orders No. 9 marries experimental filmmaking with an accessible, naturalist sensibility to tell the epic story of the clash between nature and man’s progress, and reaches a bittersweet reconciliation all its own.
So for one thing, there was the promise that the film would “break from the constraints of the documentary form”, and for another “stunning”, “visionary cinematography” — i do love me a pretty movie. And all to “contemplate the signs of loss and change in the American South”?? Sounded fascinating.
And i suppose it was, since i’m still picking at it. Just last night, in fact, the thursday night projectionist and i got to talking about it again. I’m especially interested in stories of place, and the projectionist spent many summers in the South during his childhood. We are clearly walking targets for this movie!
Yet it somewhat missed its mark.
What i enjoyed about the film was its poetic narration (delivered in the absolutely perfect voice of William Davidson) married with the, indeed, stunning cinematography. The (gorgeous) images were largely of the rural south. And that was fascinating, lovely, contemplative, and thought-provoking! I liked it precisely because, As Brian Miller wrote in his Seattle Weekly review:
Sometimes a documentary can be too clear—too many experts, too many graphics, too many pins in the butterfly.
Around the 2/3rd mark, however, the film shifted into a screed on cities, the emptiness of cities, and what this might mean as an evolutionary direction for the human race. It seems to me that such a sharp transition from a loving ode to the pastoral into a harsh, cynical observation on the urban is really only going to appeal to someone who’s already decided that they hate cities and what they mean for humans. Even tho’ i grew up rural, i still see many positives about cities — i live in Seattle now, after all. I neither hate nor love either rural or urban in absolute terms.
Ultimately, i found myself entirely agreeing with Charles Mudede’s review in The Stranger:
The first 45 minutes of this film are amazing. The last 30 minutes of it are only good. What makes the first 45 minutes amazing are three things: one, the cinematography (which is by the director, Robert Persons); two, the music (ambient, soulful folk, choral); three, the absence of humans (we only see natural and human objects/spaces). This first part of the film is set in and around a small town that has a courthouse at its center and is itself the center of a county. We see the cars of a train drifting past a graveyard, a graveyard beneath a water tower, the ruins of a church, white flowers in a damp forest, a fire in a dark forest, a snake in the night, a canoe drifting down a shallow river. The beauty of these moments will break your heart. However, the next part of the film will have no dramatic effect on your heart because it’s all caught up in a didactic dialect between the purity of the rural and the impurity of the urban. There was no real need to make this point. The rural moments say everything that needs to be said. Altogether, this is a film you must not miss.
Yes, the 1st part of the film is perfect. The 2nd part of the film is off-putting. But overall? Watch it if you get the chance. My only regret is that i couldn’t experience this film with raanve. I think she’d have some really interesting observations and interpretations.
One thing made me angry at the film, which is that despite its oft-repeated “chorus”, if you will, — “Deer track becomes Indian track becomes county road” — the film focuses only on what evolution in the South means for modern (white) Southerners. No reflection on how the transformation of the landscape might affect the local fauna. And certainly no exploration whatsoever of how white incursion might have affected the local indigenous populations, or how the current shifting from rural to urban might affect modern Native Americans.
One thing did baffle me about the film, and that was the seeming absence of references to the Civil War. The narrative, such as there was one, seemed to start in the middle of nowhere, time-wise, and proceed from there. I would have expected the Civil War to be the starting point, or to at least be addressed in some way.
Ahhh, foolish Northern me. A quick search of Wikipedia once i got home revealed that the entire film was wrapped in a Civil War mentality: the title itself is taken from General Lee’s farewell address. I’m still trying to parse exactly why the film takes its name from Lee’s farewell, but now i know exactly where the Civil War is in this discourse.
Edited to add. Actually, there was one other thing that baffled me, and that was the poster the GI had for the film:
If you click on the image, you can see a larger version — black image of a fluffy bunny smoking a pipe (bunny may have its arms crossed — hard to tell). There was no rabbit anywhere in the film, that i recall, but i suppose it could have popped up on the screen during one of the brief times i needed to step into the cinema’s lobby. The poster itself does not explain the significance of the rabbit. It wasn’t until i got home and looked at the film’s website that i saw the tagline: “One last trip down the rabbit hole before it’s paved over.”
This all just adds more layers and more bafflements to an already layered, baffling experience.
Clearly this is a film that not only lends itself to repeated viewings but fair demands it. I’m already thinking i’ll have to rent it so i can watch it again with an eye specifically looking out for all the layers and elements and references that need to be untangled.