Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ode to Southern Agrarianism: General Orders No. 9

The South was supposed to have won the Civil War rather handily. The Confederate States had all the best officers and the richest natural resources. All the north could rely on was a wealth of unsightly heavy industry (and a great president). Nearly 148 years after Gettysburg, director-cinematographer Robert Persons mourns the victory of industrialism of agrarianism in the experimental docu-essay General Orders No. 9 (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Brooklyn.

This is the land Huck and Jim roamed. However, the verdant mysterious wilds circumscribed by the Mississippi and Savannah Rivers no longer exists we are told, except for the generous tracts of unspoiled land Persons lovingly films, to remind us what we have lost. The more urban we get, the less individualistic we become, he asserts, through the evocatively rough-hewn narration of William Davidson. Yet, most of the images, whether they convey natural majesty or urban sterility, are deliberately calibrated to make views feel small and insignificant.

Despite the Lee at Appomattox reference of the title, very little of the film is distinctly Southern, per se. Indeed, much of General’s central argument could easily be applied to Robert Moses’ grand but disruptive civil planning schemes in New York. In truth, there are reasons people aggregate into cities. Large communities offer opportunities for greater economic specialization and more diverse socialization. Living in the Chattahoochee-Oconee Forest might sound appealing during a hot and hectic summer day in Brooklyn, but only a Unabomber would actually do it.

In fact, Persons never really brings his strands together into a coherent thesis. Instead, he revels in scenes of unspoiled Edens and rustic Americana, while commenting (much like the Bunkers): “those were the days.” It all sounds great though. Davidson’s voice is truly drenched in character, whereas the distinctive soundtrack (mostly credited to Chris Hoke) suggests a blend of four parts Tangerine Dream and one part bluegrass, with arrangements by Philip Glass.

Eleven years in the making, General is laudably ambitious, but the nostalgia ultimately rings hollow. After all, Persons set out become a filmmaker, not a mountaineer or a shaman. Still, on one level, it is rather refreshing to see a film express affection for the Deep South and small town life. It just does not have a lot to say. For diehard fans of experimental film and ambient music, General opens this Friday (6/24) at the ReRun Gastropub in the Borough of Kotter.