Contemplating the nature of massive urban centers, their relationship to the rural areas that encompass them entirely, and the long-term viability of such artificial and sometimes brutal landscapes is a worthwhile leisure-time activity. Those of us who’ve lived in Big Cities are, or at least should be, familiar with metropolises’ tendency to appear downright alien at times, calling to mind a converse and overly perfect image of what old-timey country living must’ve been like, and how much better, more natural, and healthful the old ways were. But there is some danger in this longing for simpler times and fresh air, at least in the US, as it invariably glosses over the less Arcadian realities of oppression, privation, and rampant disease that accompanied them. Taking all of this into account, first-time director Robert Persons spent nearly a decade putting together this evocative meditation on the meaning of human progress and how it comes into conflict with the impressive amount of idyllic, pastoral sequences he captured for General Orders No. 9, his first feature-length film.
Taking its name from General Robert E. Lee’s order, in which he acknowledged defeat and surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia, General Orders pairs gorgeously photographed scenes of nature and the city with a long-form poem, cut-up and repositioned throughout the film’s duration. The poem, written by Persons, evokes the steady, progressive demoralization of mankind through the prism of Georgia’s transformation from a bucolic realm of gentleman farmers and small county courthouses to the province of overcrowded highways and industrial decay, a barren, mechanical landscape devoid of character or humanity. While Persons’ representation of the past through his poem and the archival photographs he chooses to include in the film is unabashedly idealized, the director does not indicate that the past was entirely perfect, merely that the present is totally ugly. Such a lofty claim is naturally impossible to back up, and it doesn’t seem to be the director’s intention to convert anyone to his view of human progress. Disagree with him as you may, the final product of his labor is a sight to behold.
The moral of General Orders’ poetic story is fairly obvious: the beauty and calm resplendent in nature is being laid to ruin at an alarming pace, and far from being witnesses to this ruin, we are this ruin: “[we] are to be witnessed,” as Persons sums it up. Society is treating its resources less as a gift than a birthright to be squandered and made ugly, and this is a lonely cry that has echoed throughout the world’s civilizations — presumably since their dawn. Sure, it bears repeating, but it isn’t what makes this movie such a rewarding experience for the viewer. Persons’ writing, and the way he cuts and rearranges William Davidson’s lazy/maudlin delivery of it, layering and reprising it the way choral composers used to do with hymns, is hypnotic. Coupling meditative long shots and subdued poetry with a score featuring original songs by Chris Hoke, a movement of John Tavener’s Mother and Child and a few choice cuts by Stars of the Lid, General Orders is imbued with a unique tonality. This film is much more a portrait than it is a documentary, and while it delves into the same territory that diverse filmmakers (among them Morris and Reichardt) have plumbed in their own ways, there is something rare, precious, and somewhat demanding in it.
Persons, though his poetry and plaintive, visceral imagery, tacitly calls each of us to examine our own impact upon our community and our world, how we’re changing both, and if those changes could rightly be considered beautiful and/or noble. Over and above all that, he offers us varied glimpses of an important shared history, however steeped in Wolfesque “can’t go home again” sentimentality it might be. This film’s basic, dire question (“what will the new maps look like?”) resounds principally because of how beautiful it makes the past, and how labyrinthine and impersonal it casts the future. While I’m not planning a move to the country any time soon, a chance to encounter the beautiful is always welcome.