An essayistic montage of landscapes, cityscapes, archival photos, maps, and objects, each of them seemingly free-floating before us but contextualized by an aggressively rhythmic narrator, Robert Persons’s General Orders No. 9 is both a Chris Marker-esque paean to the state of Georgia and an oblique lamentation toward the nature-perverting wheels of progress. Concerned less with the cultural alienation facilitated by steel and concrete than with a vague loss of spatial identity, the film haphazardly follows the self-destructive path by which, in its own words, “deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road becomes interstate.” The images along the way fetishize the organic and the handmade; still-life shots of flowers, trees, and old buildings are returned to multiple times, and the exordium sketches the symmetrical cartography of an unnamed county, at the center of which is a courthouse, at the center of which is a bell tower—and so on. Despite the spectral aura of these visions and ruminations, however, and Persons’s complex sense of geographical order, under the modern mannerisms lies a rather clumsily Romantic—one might say Wordsworthian—rant that juxtaposes urbanity against a nebulous, fictitious past.
Persons mostly avoids confronting the discomfort of Southern nostalgia, though not with sustainable elegance. (His title refers to General Lee’s post-Appomattox issuance to Virginia-based troops, but the “surrender” here is to industry and consumerism without any Yankee/Dixie baggage.) After all, to reject the tradition-crushing footsteps of the 20th century is also to at best ignore, and at worst, revile concurrent attempts to achieve civil rights. In the film’s opening shot, a pair of hands turn over a series of antique objects—pieces of clay and copper that could be either 100 or 400 years old, a turn-of-the-century firearm, a bird skull, a chipped die—as though attempting to absorb their progenitors and previous owners. The juxtaposition of these very dissimilar but still recognizably “old” things likeably promotes history as fluid and emotionally approachable. (In the 21st century, is there a crucial difference between 100 or 400 years of temporal distance?) Later, however, the narrator looks upon a dilapidated shack and painfully intones: “There was a war here. One hundred years before this generation was even born.” This abruptly gawky cop-out seeks to create ideological distance that can’t fairly exist in this antebellum-gothic mythology. What does Persons think that old gun was used for?
Elsewhere, Persons’s solution to this semiotic conundrum is to avoid people and their messiness altogether while doting philosophically on their absence. Every shot, no matter how stagnant, is suggestive of inhabitance and abandonment: We see an empty canoe, an empty attic, a pile of unread books, a cemetery, a foliage detritus-pocked water surface zoomed in on so close it appears celestial. But when Native American roads become county roads, and then county roads become interstate highways, we want to conclude that nature has been paved over to allow the passage of people, for better or worse. Yet Persons rejects the connective power of asphalt, saying that it merely “bring[s] cars” and “make[s] the city possible.” His anxiety toward the future and mourning of the present are facilitated by a mass dehumanizing; mankind is powerless against an eerily autonomous development that has paradoxically emptied the Earth.
After bemoaning the lack of symmetry that interstate highways have (he calls the crossroads of Atlanta a “false center”), Persons observes the “tragedy” of machinery that helps us to invent worthless ephemera we have no choice but to continually destroy. Cars are impacted, buildings bulldozed. When we espy people in these scenarios, they appear hopeless, bemused, and glassy-eyed, the somnambulist slaves of progress they haven’t invited. In the movie’s most incendiary moment, we observe African Americans wearing bleached, ghostly masks. These are, presumably, snapshots of the recent lynching reenactment-cum-protests in Monroe, Georgia, but they’ve been agilely divorced from their political context, fading in and out of blurred autumnal colors. Is the implication that anonymity is always a useless weapon against—or maybe simply a byproduct of—environmental pressure? If so, the loaded intentions of Persons’s abstractions here make even the fight for tolerance seem like an attempt to enforce an unholy asymmetry.
General Orders No. 9 has some subtlety on its side, both conceptually and visually. There’s a series of stark, white-on-black silhouette symbols—an elk’s head and a road sign among them—that are more striking than any of the picturesque cinematography; the icons are so bright and pale that when we blink we can see their imprints, like portentous birthmarks on our eyelids. But Persons exercises this pseudo-lyrical obliqueness even when approaching ideas that need to be tackled and wrestled into the moist dirt of the backyard he so lovingly photographs.
Early on, the fertile Georgian county that serves as a narrative anchor is called “a holy district, and it is holy throughout”; a cross-dissolve then shows us a dyad of electrical towers perched ominously on an otherwise bucolic hillside, and it occurs to us that our narrator may not be as omniscient as his solemnity suggests. The voiceover similarly refers to the rise of cities over towns as “the epidemic of the future,” and then contradicts its own verbiage by commenting, “There are no words to describe the city.” And in the film’s dismal tour of the unnamed metropolis (Atlanta), Persons imagines via CGI a boxy environment of totalitarian cleanliness and monotony. But this generic, Orwellian nightmare achieves the same symmetry as the blessed county’s immaculately centered courthouse, so why is the narrator’s “soul vexed” so indelibly?
Persons does his best to make the real city appear ugly beside his shamanic rattlesnakes and turtles and flopping fish; he shoots, in black and white, a myriad of oil splotches and belching smokestacks and oppressive structures of iron and glass. But the pellucid, high-res camerawork undoes his thesis, as it all looks bewilderingly beautiful, oneiric. As does the totemic apocalypse toward the ending, where all the maps and icons and knickknacks we’ve meditated on coruscate wildly on the screen while a grand chorale crescendos. After this, a canoe floats downstream in a narrow, shallow river, full of unread books. So the rise of modernity—and the emergence of technology that has made literature more accessible than ever before—has brought about the death of literacy too? What of the tools that produced, at an admittedly small scale, the books that are being ushered to their watery grave in this scene? Where along the line, from the mighty leap to “county road” to “interstate,” did we turn our backs on our wholesome essence?
Our classic love/hate relationship with the modern age might be best illustrated by the single breath that praises Gutenberg’s ingenuity but damns the printing press and the subsequent the loss of textual individuality. This is understandable, as achievement is humanly resonant while innovation has always reverberated into changes that intimidate us. (The ultimate American hero might be the failed inventor, an eternal wellspring of ideas that stimulate us with their vision, but stop short of challenging the status quo.) Persons, however, takes this ambivalence a step further and erases Gutenberg from the picture altogether. The written word becomes moveable type becomes the (evil, soulless) mass paperback, and all the humanity between those gaps has just been along for the canoe ride, unaware of the waterfall waiting to goose them. He elucidates this fallacy with enough measured silence and meta-textual ponderousness to be mistaken for poetic. But beneath the slipshod verse, General Orders No. 9 is repugnantly anti-social.