Debut filmmaker Robert Persons’ “General Orders No. 9” contemplates the loss of the natural world to the onslaught of urbanism in the Deep South. Coming seemingly out of nowhere — Persons is new to the film and festival world, where the pic has landed at small events before an under-the-radar Slamdance appearance — the work combines pictorialism and impressionist imagery with a lovely prose-poem text that rewards repeated viewings. A true original, this is a desirable film for adventurous fests and distribs specializing in nonfiction and art films on DVD.
Deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road is the film’s mantra, written as part of a complex and poetic text by Persons and recited with rich, gravelly intensity by narrator William Davidson. Elegantly unfolding as, first, a series of historical maps, then architectural plans and, finally, a montage of photographically pristine landscape shots, “General Orders No. 9” depicts a version of the South likely never heard or seen before. The wide swathe of land from the Mississippi River on the west to the Savannah River on the east (encompassing Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia) is viewed as a bioregion, carved first into indigenous tribal territories and then as states filled with the tiny borderlines of counties.
These counties take on an almost mystical, even sinister quality in Persons world, or as he terms it in his peculiarly Southern turn of phrase, the world entire. The center of this world is the weather vane atop an archetypal county courthouse situated at the heart of the county seat, as if it were some harbinger of terrible things to come.
Portions of the film are purely pictorial, with gorgeous images (by Persons) that are more properly photography than cinema. But the accumulation of small details, observations and a precise rhythm created by editor Phil Walker asserts a cinematic direction. The film’s lament of the eradication of wilderness for a megalopolis (Atlanta, in this case, viewed as an airless, concrete monstrosity) is hardly new, but Persons’ and Walker’s selection and choices offer a new variation on old ideas.
A certain obscurantism is detectable in the mysterious title, which does little to suggest the film’s sensuousness and willful poetry. Chris Hoke’s original ambient score dovetails with soundtrack selections (including work by composer John Tavener) that magnificently support and complement the mystical mood.
Pic won Slamdance’s cinematography prize.