general-orders_posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? General Orders No. 9 is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Robert Persons

Screenplay by: Robert Persons

Usually, those directors who spend many years to make their film are those who have celebrated careers and who have gained big reputations in Hollywood. The two biggest examples that come to mind are Stanley Kubrick (whose Eyes Wide Shut came out 12 years after his last film, Full Metal Jacket) and Terrence Malick (who also took many years to make The Tree of Life). For first-time director (who never went to film school) Robert Persons, it took him 11 years to make General Orders No. 9. That is a long time, especially for a film that is only 71 minutes long. It is a documentary, but not your conventional one. General Orders No. 9 can best be described as an experimental, somewhat abstract tonal poem that laments the replacement of our society’s communities in favor of giant, impersonal, and cold metropolises. In particular, Persons, a native of Georgia who grew up in a small town outside of Atlanta, reflects on the disappearance of the old South and how small towns seemed to live harmoniously with nature rather than destroy it. The documentary consists of voiceovers, maps, music, and various imagery.

Persons goes beyond just making illustrating the problems of urban sprawl. He has grander ambitions. The film attempts to give us a sense of place within the grander scheme of the universe (cosmologically speaking rather than in any scientific way), to give our place a sense of meaning, and to show us that our places have a center. To that end, the film uses images of old maps of the South to show us how our towns and counties came to be and how these places had a center around which these communities were organized. From this, we are asked how humanity can regain its center (it cannot) from today’s forms of urban planning.

As his sources of inspiration, Persons has stated that he drew from such filmmakers as Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Andrei Rublev), who was known for having metaphysical themes in his films and who would use very long takes; David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive), who likes to use recurrent and surrealist imagery; and Werner Herzog (Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man, Cave of Forgotten Dreams), whose worldview often seems bleak and anti-humanistic and civilization seems to teeter on the edge of self-destruction. All of these themes and devices are present in General Orders No. 9. Persons was also deeply influenced by the 18th century naturalist writings of William Bartram, who traveled through the southeast writing about and drawing pictures of plants and animals. This too is strongly present in the film.

I immediately connected with the theme of urban sprawl in General Orders No. 9. As an ardent supporter of environmental causes, I easily gravitate towards these types of films and, admittedly, I have a certain degree of bias in their favor when I review them. Moreover, I have an immense respect for filmmakers who operate in states in which finding professional talent and resources to make a film are more difficult (i.e. Georgia). Robert Persons shot the film entirely in Georgia and he found people in Atlanta who mostly did video and motion graphics work to help him put it together.

General Orders No. 9 is not for everyone and it is most likely only going to attract film buffs and the art crowd. Despite my interest in the themes of the film and my appreciation of the filmmakers’ efforts to make this documentary, I was unable to connect with the film. While I appreciate the film’s naturalist touch and its clear reverence for the natural world, General Orders No. 9 is too abstract and vague to convey the message that it wants to give. The first part of the film nostalgically shows pristine Georgian landscapes unmolested by people. The film then contrasts that with the urban sprawl of Atlanta and how it has gobbled up surrounding counties like a disease. The movie does a good job showing us the monolithic and impersonal traits of the big city. You get a concrete sense of how we have allowed these cities to grow unabated without a view toward sustainability. The first part of the film should have also employed a similarly concrete, more linear portrait of the country and how things used to be. I wanted to get a better sense of the communal nature of these small towns and specifically how they were able to co-exist with nature. On a related note, the film misses a big opportunity to also comment on the cultural alienation that an urban environment tends to create. The film fails to address this and instead seems only concerned with the loss of geographic/spatial countryside to a steel and concrete environment.

Furthermore, when you get right down to it, the basic message of the film is that the city is bad and the country is good. Robert Persons seems to despise modernity as the ominously scored images of modern-day Atlanta clearly suggest. A reactionary attitude such as this makes for a shallow message. You get a sense that Persons does not like people and if he had his way, he would prefer to live in the country surrounded by nothing but cows. Like I said, I sympathize with much of what the film says, but I cannot accept that this country’s progress toward urbanization over the past 100 years or so has failed to produce any positive achievements. Worse, the film’s nostalgic look at the South’s past and its yearning to go back in time conveniently ignores the South’s racist past and the achievements of the Civil Rights movement.

Finally, for someone who spent 11 years making this film, I am surprised by the screensaver quality of the film’s imagery. To be sure, there are a lot of beautiful images, but the way they are editing together leaves a lot to be desired. What’s more, I don’t understand why the director chose to not have people in any of his shots (except for a few archival photographs). Is there a purpose behind this? Does Robert Persons not like people?

There is a bit to be admired about General Orders No. 9 and much to be admired of Robert Persons’ efforts and ambitions. Unfortunately, the documentary’s message is muddled and even contradictory at times. Rather than focus on one theme (e.g. urban sprawl), the director mashes up different messages that in the end really just amount to an observation that people suck and modernity is bad in all of its forms. This is an overly simplistic and shallow notion. Not even my nature-loving self can fully accept that.