Have any of you all heard about the film, “General Orders No. 9” ? It’s a visual & musical tone poem—an experimental film which appeared in 2011. The filmmaker, Robert Persons, took 11 years to make it. It concerns his musings about the Deep South, mostly Georgia, but also includes abutting parts of Mississippi & Alabama. This strange film struck a deep cord within me. I’ve included the trailer as it echoes images I have of Faulkner’s world. The narrator is William Davidson in this haunting visual tone poem.
Geography matters much to “General Orders No. 9”. The narrator takes us from the time that the Deep South belonged to Native Americans, who in turn, were displaced by the English, who then turned into English Americans, who then ended as Southerners. Hence, the Deep South became “the Pillar of Heaven.” The camera images that Robert Person takes of Southern nature devoid of human occupation just intimate the isolation of our modern world from its roots. From deer trails, to Indian trails, to Anglo-Southern trails, and then into county roads, villages, towns, and cities of the New South with their industrial pipes. What should the new map look like?
God gave Adam His blessing to oversee the Garden of Eden. Southerners were called to answer this same call in the South. Yes, we Southerners are sinners dependent upon our salvation through our Saviour Jesus Christ, and that’s why we are truly responsible for the South God gave us. We are called to be careful stewards of the Southland. Read Wendell Berry: farmer, poet, rural Kentucky philosopher.
We now have a hard time to seek this centre. We cannot see in full, this world, so says the director. Does anyone amongst my readers have fathers or grandfathers who taught you all their favourite places for hooking catfish? And afterwards, the perfect way to fry them in Lodge cast-iron skillets over hand-made fires in ancient Southern woods? Or did any of your forefathers taught you all to hunt squirrels, rabbits, and deer in a South that had not yet become sub-divisions where occasional animals wander into, because their natural habitat has been destroyed and these poor creatures are starving?
Film director Robert Persons wrote this long, thoughtful, reflective poetic film that he turned into a documentary narrated by William Davidson. What Persons creates is moody, meditative, intriguing. The musical score uses choral singing that is mesmerising, perfect for the film. What shall the new map of the South be like, as the film’s background choir asks its viewers and listeners?
All traditional Southerners will know the film’s reference to General Robert E. Lee’s farewell speech to his officers and soldiers in the Army of Northern Virginia. I believe that if we ever take back our country, every Southern child in either private or public school should be required to study this beautiful General Orders No. 9 and memorise as much of it as possible so as to pass it on to their children & their children’s children, who will also study in school, within a freed South, General Orders No. 9, and its true meaning and significance for Southerners, delivered to his devoted, long-suffering soldiers by a noble, stoical Virginian who represented what was truest about the South.
Earlier this afternoon, I talked with a friend in Arkansas. I told her about visiting my adopted grandfather Yearns’ hometown in Louisville, Georgia. Images that I retain from it could have been used in this film. I still haven’t written about this journey into the past that took place two decades ago, and yet remains vivid in my memory today, like driving through a dark, denuded forest located within the former plantation black soil Georgia, only to arrive at Louisville, the brief capital of Georgia during the 1790s, following the First War of American Independence. Today, Louisville is a small town, with an empty main street, and where the quiet big houses remain, including Grandpapa’s old large home.
Here is a quote from the film review by Variety magazine:
In April, you can still feel it—that something is pushing against the surface of things,” muses narrator William Davidson, as shots of a neglected memorial in the woods, a trickling stream, and a quiet clearing at twilight glide by.’There was a war here, a hundred years before this generation was born. A war happened here. We’re lost without a map, but well misplaced. Bring us doubt upon doubt, bless us, and break us with mystery upon mystery. The Lord loves a broken spirit. Pray that we are well broken.
And here, I quote…From the film. ‘When what was lost by the father, is lost by the son. Could there have been some other way?’
The cinema was the single most original art form created in the late 19th Century, and perfected within the 20th Century. A movie can entertain us for two hours on a night and forgotten in time. Of course, it can entertain us & forge masterpieces, as well, like “Gone With The Wind”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Casablanca”, “The Seven Samurai”, or “Apocalypse Now”.
But the cinema, like all great art, will last for centuries, provided humanity still exists. Most movies are made for immediate entertainment & profit. Alternative films are made for the sake of cinematographic art. Sometimes, both the business & the art side of film-making connect beautifully–like all the movies I mentioned above.
To date, “General Orders No. 9” is the only film that Robert Persons has made, and the only film that actor William Davidson has performed in. What remains is this unique film. I hope Persons is spending his next decade on making another Southern experimental film.
“General Orders No. 9” will not be for everyone, but I thought the film was visually stunning & its film director & cinematographer utterly faithful to a vision of what the cinema can be. Furthermore, it was meaningful to me personally, because it speaks poetically in the visual medium of cinema on irreparable loss & the dissolution of the South into its modern-day urban, suburban, deracinated conquest.
I confess to being an urban, trilingual, cosmopolitan Southern intellectual with intense Confederate feelings; however, I truly understand & empathise with film director Robert Persons when he says that the City is not a place, but a thing. He means the ugly, soulless cities of the New South—and not the Southern cities I love—Washington, Charleston, Savannah and New Orleans.
And yet, and yet, in all traditional Southern hearts, this is not acceptable—this new post-modern cultural & environmental deracination, though ‘our surroundings become detestable’ according to the film “General Orders No. 9”. It’s not something you get over with the passing of time, says film director Robert Persons.
The South has not yet perished, it must not perish, so help us God!