Sunday, July 10, 2011

Review | "General Orders No. 9"

One of the things I've learned in my years as a film critic is that sometimes first impressions aren't always right. I first saw Robert Persons' documentary, General Orders No. 9, in 2010 when it showed at the River Run Film Festival, and I left admittedly a bit baffled by it. It seemed to just be an exceptionally pretty slide show, a borderline pretentious collection of photographs and poetic musings that, on first glance, just didn't connect with me.

It's easy, in a film festival setting, to miss a film's subtleties sometimes, when you're trying to watch as many films in a day as you can. If it doesn't grab you right off the bat, it's going to fall through the cracks.

So when I sat down to watch General Orders No. 9 for a second time for review purposes, I was surprised just how differently I felt about it by the time it was over. Even with a scant running time of 72 minutes, there is a lot to chew on here.

It almost plays out like a documentary by way of Terrence Malick, an abstract, impressionistic meditation on the American South, and more specifically, Persons' home state of Georgia. It's clearly a deeply personal film. Persons, through folksy narration by William Davidson, explores feelings and emotions evoked by his wistful nostalgia for a time long past. General Orders No. 9 unfolds like a series of hazy memories, a stream of consciousness reflection on Georgia's rich history and natural beauty. He seems enamored with symmetry, and the simple order of small town structure - the courthouse at the center, with the rest of the town spreading out around it.

It turns elegiac, however, as Persons turns to the urban development that has forever changed the face of the South. The interstate is viewed as a blight upon the landscape, a jagged scar that divides rather than unites, destroying the fragile order of the old ways. Here, the old South is elevated to the status of myth, a bygone memory lost amid faceless, soulless urban sprawl.

General Orders No. 9 is anything but a conventional documentary. Those going in looking for a documentary on the history of Georgia will be sorely disappointed. Instead, it's an almost avant-garde, experimental reflection on a dying way of life. Persons saw the world changing around him and put his feelings on film. And while the final result has a tendency to wander, and much of it is comprised on photographs overlayed with music and narration, it's an undeniably enthralling experience. It's clearly a passion project, a deeply personal and vibrant work of art that deftly captures textures and atmosphere on a South that only exists now in very special places.

"It exists as a world entire," Davidson often intones throughout the film, and indeed the film itself invokes the feeling of an entire world seen through the eyes of a man who has been deeply immersed in it since childhood. The South of General Orders No. 9 may not exist anymore, and while Persons memorably mourns its passing, he has ensured that it will not soon be forgotten through this unique and inspired ode to Dixie.

GRADE - ★ (out of four) 

GENERAL ORDERS NO. 9 | Directed by Robert Persons | Narrated by William Davidson | Not rated | Now showing in select cities.

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