Once in a great while a film will find its way under your ribcage, and bare its weight down from within. Robert Persons’ hypnotic debut, General Orders No. 9, happens to be one of these rare films. It’s not any one particular moment that invokes this peculiar emotional reverberance, but the result of the overall density of the film’s nostalgic, but cautiously distraught tone. Person’s poetic creation circles around the origins of his home state of Georgia, but it slowly evolves into an argument for simplistic small town living rather than the cacophonous mechanisms of a lifeless modern city (as he sees them). Shortly before and after he organizes his collection of human artifacts of war and life amidst the ambient humming soundtrack, our narrator speaks of “something pushing up against the surface of things,” and as our hearts sink we are left to wonder if we are pushing ourselves away from the world we’ve cherished since the birth of man.
Navigating somewhere between the realm of historical documentary and experimental visual poetry, General Orders No. 9 is a wholly original piece of film making. The loose narrative starts with what looks to be one of the first maps to include the state of Georgia. As the sprawling territory slowly shrinks to its current size, roads and counties take shape on the map, and the beginnings of modern civilization is spoken of in opaque discourse. Soon the camera lovingly explores the warm Georgian countryside, lingering on misty wooded knolls, reflective waters, and blossoming white flowers. The southern warmth seems to fade as the topic moves on to grimmer ground. We find ourselves in a cold, unwelcoming metropolis made for anything but the living. The city is portrayed with disdain, and spoken of with even harsher words.
Person’s style is instantly comparable to that of Terrence Malick. His meditations on nature and inner conflict portrayed through the use of a ponderous, inwardly searching voiceover echo Malick’s poetic tendencies, but it’s not just in an aesthetic sense that the film seems Malickian. General Orders also explores spirituality, and the possibility of an afterlife, as Malick did with The Tree of Life just a year later. Though the doc wasn’t made with the high end gear and polished cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, the men behind the camera surely knew how to capture beautiful images of the Georgian landscape. Early morning mist and golden hour sunlight is taken full advantage of to create a place in which you strangely ache to build your own log cabin with plans to live off the land like the olden days long passed.
After a brief self released DVD under the guise of New Rose Window, Passion River took the reigns, releasing both DVD and Blu-ray versions of the film. Though the Blu comes packaged in a sleek matte digi-pack featuring that mysterious toking bunny (though annoyingly DVD sized), the disc itself is absolutely bare bones. Not even a trailer found its way on the disc. Once the disc boots, it takes you to a static menu with two viewing options, the surround audio mix, or stereo. The image quality compliments the beautiful cinematography quite nicely, with a clean, natural look that portrays all the lovely greenery with cordial representation. There are a few rare instances of mild off colored flaring in the upper left corner of the screen, but we’re talking very minimal noticeability here that shouldn’t distract normal viewing. The DTS 5.1 track on board does a solid job pumping the film’s mesmerizing soundtrack through along with William Davidson’s perfectly weathered narration. A variety of tracks by Stars of the Lid, Pelt, David Daniell, Grace Braun, and John Tavener line the film with a bed of ambient music that fits the film perfectly, and they sound brilliant within the surround mix.
Within the fairly short running time of 72 minutes, viewers will find themselves among the old growth and grassy hills of Georgia, lost within the poetic arc that Robert Persons and his skeleton crew have lens. Like the work of Malick, General Orders No. 9 isn’t made to give clear cut answers to the many visual and lyrical questions it poses, but it surely stirs the mental pot, leaving that signature southern oakiness lingering in the air long after the final frame. This Blu-ray release doesn’t have the extra goodies cinephiles are now quite used to, but the film itself is well worth a look, as it is one of the best, most original documentaries of the last few years.
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