GENERAL ORDERS NO. 9 Review

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
Robert Persons' General Orders No. 9 plays somewhere between a straight up documentary and an avant-garde experiment rich in mood and atmosphere. It is one of those films that populate the festival circuit, equally wowing and perplexing audiences, picking up critical acclaim and then all but disappearing from the public eye.

These films are visual tone poems; essays of reflection and reflex, of history filtered through nightmare, through wonder. These are films that offer personal and earnest views of the world, both inner and outer, ethereal and tangible, through such uncompromising cinematic means that I can't but scratch my head, pondering why gems such as these fall to the wayside (even if I know why). So boy am I glad that I saw General Orders No. 9 on the big screen, and that it may live on and be seen, even in the limited release it is getting now, a few years after its festival run.

Halfway into our journey down the rabbit hole that is the state of Georgia, our narrator -- an old Georgian lamenting on bygone days -- begins to talk about the interstate: "The interstate does not serve. It poses. It has the power to make the land invisible to our attention."

Long lines of cars sweep across the screen in an up to down arc, in a down to up arc. Their headlights are like pupil-less eyes: blind, dead, dutiful. Music swells. The slow motion of cars is insidious and crushing... And then the basic lines of a map appear. And like a disease festering to the surface, a stain spreading across fabric, roads, streets, smaller, more intricate patterns take shape. This is the city. As the lonely, omnipotent-like camera leads us down desolate hallways and unfriendly alleys, our narrator muses in disgust: "The city is not a place. The city is a thing. The city is a machine."

And soon we swing back to the pastoral calm of a field, the forest, a creek cutting a small breadth, a long length, through the trees. And the town with its court house and its weathervane that makes sense, that is, as our narrator puts it, "the center of it all."

11 years in the making, Robert Persons has crafted a wistful film, a sometimes torrential eulogy for the seemingly lost spirituality that one may find in the natural world. It carries with it a melancholy and grace, a slowly closing eye for the good ol' days when men were farmers, and the land was the land... a place. Perhaps, then it is a nostalgic piece -- it does open on a pair of hands pondering over old Civil War bullets, bird skulls, exoskeletons of insects, Indian pottery -- but this feels too boxed-in of a notion. General Orders No. 9 is not a political film either. Or at least it doesn't have many overt political connotations, though it may carry with it a very particular ideology.

What I find most fascinating about Persons' film is the way it approaches the map as a once grand, romantic gesture . It was a rich story, a cosmology really; of where we had come from, where we were, and through the hushed markings of unknown lands, where we could go.

And then there is the way shapes and symbols are presented in the film.

Darkness... the emblem of a deer skull fades onto screen. That deer skull fades into a mask with antlers. The mask morphs into the shape of a road sign. Our narrator hums slowly: "Deer trails becomes Indian trail. Indian trail becomes county road."

And another map. Of the county, of the town... it now appears like a wheel, spokes and all; Our narrator states, "as a world entire." We accept the passing of the old ways. Of changes large and small. We see trees chopped down. We see towns burnt to ruin, factories to rust. We witness amongst hundreds of onlookers, the final moments of a man's life. We pack up old trinkets, nick-knacks and books, and drive somewhere else. The river flows. The cycle begins again.

General Orders No. 9 plays at the Rerun Gastropub Theater in Brooklyn, NY until this Thursday, June 30th. Further one week engagements are scheduled for Denver (July 1-8) and Dallas (August 5-11). Check out the official website for further info.

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