The Film is a Ghost: An Encounter With “General Orders No. 9”

The notion that General Orders No. 9 is a ghost was born from the necessity to communicate at once the mystery it preserves, the perspective it exhibits, and the polarized reactions it will continue to yield. For some, this equation reinforces their belief that the film is a transparent spook; they can see right through it. It has no factual evidence for its absurd claims, and those who confess to find meaning in it have only witnessed an imaginary projection within their own mind.

For others, they will encounter a ghost; it will be beautiful and haunting. And, even if they don't like what it says, it will speak to them. Their experience with the film will be impossible to fully communicate to others, but the spell has been cast.

General Orders director Robert Persons won't deny he's trying to cast a spell, but he's not quick to confirm what it is exactly. In our conversation he stressed the importance of mystery in General Orders. His devotion to the film's mystery was evident by the caution he took when speaking of it. At one point I – somewhat rudely – snickered at his fear that the film could be spoiled by talking about it too much. If you couldn't guess, it is not a film that relies heavily upon plot points, but after viewing the film I knew exactly what he meant.

Of course, mystery surrounds Persons as well. He grew up in the middle of Georgia, but never said exactly where. He's not a filmmaker that has moved up through the production ranks or put in his time networking within a film community. He's not a young film school graduate who writes a screenplay every 3 months and always has one in his back pocket. Nor is there a film collective who claims him as a member. He literally has appeared to us, seemingly from out of nowhere, film in hand. (In a poetic accident, my recording of our 199 minute conversation was not saved. Some details have been missed.

The spell Persons has cast is old and dead. That does not mean irrelevant or useless, it means the film speaks to us as a force from the past. Half of us were not alive to remember life before the Interstate was built. Many of us have never known someone who knew someone who was alive during the Civil War. Certainly it is difficult for any of us to imagine a time when Georgia was stretched all the way to the Mississippi, or when Native Americans traced the hoofprints of deer. Yet, these are the apparitions that come to us. They arrive in the form of a maps, skulls, sculpture or red die. They warn us about the things to come, and show us signs we don't quite understand. General Orders is a spirit, left behind in this world, unable to rest until these matters are resolved:

What should the new map look like? Which totem will watch over us?

Persons admits that some parts of General Orders are still a mystery to him. Some of the sequences are literally filmed accounts of dreams he stole to waking life. It is a film about his home, and while knowing more about him does not clarify the film, it does provide a map on how to approach it. Persons came at filmmaking in the same way filmmaking came to us: at the intersection of all other art forms. His background in painting, music, and especially poetry met when he discovered Virginia-Highland's “Movies Worth Seeing” video rental store. At this junction he lived off of a steady diet of transcendental cinema, devouring Herzog, Tarkovsky, Bresson, and Haneke (to name a few). So strong was the influence of these films that once the near 40 year old began work on General Orders, he no longer wanted to watch any movies until it was complete. Now, 11 years later, he admits, “I like these Apatow movies. I would watch those.”

It is safe to point out – without any fear of spoilage – that General Orders No. 9 bears no resemblance to The 40 Year Old Virgin. However, I believe Persons is as skilled at creating dense, psycho-geographical, visually stunning film poems as Apatow is at creating crude-but-smart, character driven, adult comedies. Still, there is more to be desired in Persons work. General Orders proves without a doubt that he has no trouble establishing tone, and he understands how to pace a film (a tip of the hat to producer/editor Phil Walker and composer Chris Hoke). No one can dispute the awards the film has received for cinematography. But even Persons surmised that he wants to make films that connect deeper with audiences than General Orders.

For my part, I felt that General Orders sometimes creates mystery by narrowly avoiding questions, thereby leaving some claims unsupported. But as we have learned from science and art, we are no danger running out of mysteries, and mystery is born out of discovery. I'm not willing to say here specifically what moments of the film felt unexplored, but I will say that the passages that concern the city felt intentionally naive. Perhaps that's a product of the narrator's anger, poetic license, my relationship to Atlanta or maybe the point is lost on me, but I have a feeling that anyone who has affection for city life will feel their affinity is under attack.

Still, I remain floored by his command over the material, his continuity of thought, the surprises along the way, the fear I felt during the city passages, and the beauty of Georgia that is invisible from I-75 to Tampa. It is a film that is in all ways refreshing. Fortunately it has been labeled a documentary because it reshapes our expectations of the form, and unfortunately because many will only see that it is not aligned with existing expectations. However, this subversion must continue.

During that awkward part of any interview where you have to ask “what's next?,” Mr. Persons shared with me his excitement that he's “been starting to get ideas lately.” This simple confession was very encouraging. I look forward to seeing more of his work, but I hope I don't have to wait another 11 years. Until then, I will see General Orders No. 9 at least several more times to see if the mystery will unravel.

I hear, that if you visit the old Cinefest Film Theater on the Georgia State campus this Friday and Saturday at 7pm you might see a ghost. (Full schedule of possible sightings below.)

SCHEDULE Friday 8/12 5:30 pm, 7:00 pm - Q&A AFTERWARDS Saturday 8/13 3:30 pm, 5:30 pm, 7:00 pm - LIVE MUSIC / Q&A Sunday 8/14 3:30 pm, 5:30 pm Monday through Friday 8/15-8/19 5:30pm, 7:00pm Saturday 8/20 3:30pm, 5:30pm, 7:00pm Sunday 8/21 3:30pm, 5:30pm, 7:00pm