I feel like this movie was made by a sixteen-year old who just got a camera and believes that taking pictures of empty chairs is somehow profound. Let me clarify: writer/director Robert Persons clearly believes that taking pictures of empty chairs is somehow profound, a sentiment which should only be entertained when proposed by a child. The movie makes excuses for its dull lack of imagination by declaring itself “experimental”. Were it made by a teenager, this descriptor might be apt; such a filmmaker would indeed be experimenting, learning how to create art. But coming from an adult, things like the overwrought, meaningless metaphor of a canoe full of books floating unguided down a river– it’s ridiculous, at best. Or more accurately, it’s embarrassing.
Allegedly, it took more than a decade for Persons to complete General Orders No. 9, a movie which clocks in at just a little over an hour yet feels interminable. It’s a documentary about the state of Georgia, but not in any conventional sense. The only time when the film appears to have any purpose is when it goes into a strange anti-city rant; beyond that, it’s a collection of still photographs or video of unpopulated landscapes. We see a tree in early morning fog; an empty cemetery with a water tower standing in the background; a bridge with water dripping off it; a cow chewing cud. Phil Hall of Film Threat hits the nail on the head when he describes the film as a “screensaver on steroids”. Newsflash: simply showing a rusted pick-up in a field does not in and of itself make a profound statement. If this is the legacy of Terrence Malick, whose work I’ve heard this film compared to, it’s a sad reflection on the legendary director. It would be like studying under Kubrick and only coming away with “always include a bathroom scene in your movie”. Well, perhaps that’s a bit extreme; nevertheless, an over-reliance on establishing shots combined with a narrator reciting “abstract” “poetry” over the imagery does not a work of art make. Instead, it just leaves the viewer with the queasy feeling of watching someone trying to make art – forcing it, fumbling, and failing.
Yes, the movie is a history of the state of Georgia, but only in the most tenuous ways. The narrator, who speaks in a droning voice that does nothing to enliven the flat images of empty rooms on display throughout the film, says things like, “Deer trail becomes Indian trail becomes county road.” Whoa, man, totally. Like, it’s the circle of life, right? In the few moments within the film that might have required some sort of skill, we see a bare map of the state become crossed with lines representing counties, then even further inward lines representing roads, all leading inward to the capitol building, and more specifically toward the weather vane at the center of everything. If I were being generous, I might interpret this return to the weather vane as the center of civilization to mean that it is the weather itself that the film finds important, i.e. that the natural world is the real world. This reading is supported by the narrator’s insistence that the capitol building “is a false center”. Oh, and then there’s the surprising anti-city tirade that comes to the forefront midway through the film.
The movie disparages the city as not being a place, but rather a thing. It’s less like an environment and more like a machine, so sayeth the narrator. Accordingly, we are treated to a procession of stark, black-and-white images of empty buildings, like something you might see in an infomercial (why is plastic so confusing?). In silence, the slideshow–er, I mean, the “movie”–shows us vast, empty parking garages, expansive warehouses, angular concrete walls, and featureless corridors. Never mind that there’s a certain beauty in functionality (after all, functionality is the driving force of evolution); never mind the artistry and effort expended by dozens upon dozens of people in creating something as impressive as a building (humans are notably absent from General Orders No. 9). What’s frustrating is that the film intentionally limits its view of “the city” to gutted buildings. Machine or no, a warehouse full of computers and conveyor belts and huge vats mixing chemicals would seem a lot more animated than the gray chambers the movie shows. Then there’s the matter of the failure to argue why a path through the woods is preferable to the city. I personally find the camera’s movement past a wall of trees just as unmoving as Persons evidently finds man-made structures – yet the film treats it as a given that “nature” is preferable to the apparently unnatural, that which has been fabricated and constructed.
It’s not even man-made things that cause such consternation, given that the camera lingers on a room littered with dusty books or a player piano with a loving softness. It’s almost as though the film is yearning nostalgically for an earlier age, but without bothering to examine its biases critically or bother explaining why its biases are preferable to the world of the city/the present and future. As ever, the movie relies on simple landscapes thought to be inherently artistic as its only proof of the virtue of its vision. Here’s a babbling brook: aren’t you impressed? Don’t you see how meaningful that is? Oh look, here is an empty bed next to a rocking chair that is not moving. Am I blowing your mind yet? Incidentally, this movie has allegedly won multiple awards for cinematography… so is simply being able to focus the camera a mark of great cinematography these days?
There’s nothing extraordinary about the cinematography, or about any part of General Orders No. 9, for that matter. In fact, it’s a film that’s resolutely ordinary. Whatever philosophy it’s conveying is immature and unpolished, or possibly just lazy. Admittedly, some of the pictures are pretty. But that’s a far cry from incredible or insightful. It doesn’t scan as a noble passion project that misses its mark. Rather, it seems to be little more than egregious self-indulgence that has not earned the right to act as pretentious as it does.