Experimental films resist easy categorization because they don't share genre characteristics as gangster, science fiction or action adventure films do. In addition, experimental works may or may not have any discernable narrative or chronological order. This holds true for General Orders No. 9 as, at a measured pace, the narrator somberly describes the changes over many years in the land from the Savannah River on the east to the Mississippi River on the west. As an old map labeled Georgia (once encompassing three times the current state's geographical area) fills the screen, we hear, "From a wilderness to a state, from unknown lands to chartered streets, the deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road. In the beginning it was vast and wild. It was the entire middle South." Sequences of shots establish the original landscape which development has transformed until the narrator concludes regretfully, much later in the film, "I can't make sense of it."
What we've lost becomes increasingly obvious. Shots of forests and streams, fields and rivers yield to water towers and trains, cemeteries and grain elevators. Nature dominates and compels our attention as it contrasts with small towns and abandoned houses. A player piano makes music, a fish lies dying on a riverbank, clouds gather ominously, and a celebrated courthouse with its anchoring weather vane appears and reappears along with archival photographs. Maps that the camera zooms in on are enlivened through animation, progressing from trails to roads to an interstate. Periodic fades to black punctuate sections as Persons' provides viewers moments to collect their thoughts and breathe.
The organizing principle dictating the flow of images eludes me, though the shots feel coherent and unified even with the reappearance of several shots along with repetition of the spoken commentary quoted above. Initially I found the narrator's voice too lifeless, too quiet and subdued. But as the film's 72 minutes unfold, the narration becomes mesmerizing. The soundtrack helps establish this receptive, contemplative state as Persons invites us to feel and think what change has meant to this gorgeous land. Press notes report that he spent more than eleven years in his own thoughtful consideration.
General Orders No. 9 won the cinematography award at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Haunting and beautiful images of nature validate the award. Film fans wanting an alternative to the driving, narrative fictions that populate most commercial screens will find a welcome respite in General Orders No. 9.
The St. Louis premiere of General Orders No. 9 will be at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, February 24th through Sunday, February 26th. For information and the current schedule, you may call 314-968-7487 or you may go to the web at: Webster.edu/filmseries.