Robert Persons' haunting film, General Orders No. 9, is a visual poem that traces the changing landscape of the Deep South. In his negative review of the film, Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times sums up the point of General Orders with the brief statement, "people bad, nature good." This summation assumes that documentary film is a fundamentally rhetorical form that can be reduced to a simple argument. Admittedly, General Orders' use of repetitive and stark visual contrasts between the congested city and empty wilderness lends itself to such an intepretation on the surface. Yet I wonder if the film is doing more than simply offering a Thoreau-esque treatise to return to an idealized state of living in nature. I can't help but feel Genzlinger's summary reduction of the film is incomplete, unsatisfying, and almost insulting.
The film, I suggest, demands a different way of thinking about how documentaries operate. General Orders, first of all, challenges conventional notions of what can and should be classified as documentary. While documentary has always had a close relationship with experimental film, General Orders further complicates the already blurred boundaries between these two cinematic forms. Conventional documentaries take a linear, chronological approach to historical representation, using recognized cause-and-effect structures that situate the past as something lost, long gone, and accessible only by the dead traces it leaves behind. I suggest that General Orders offers a different kind of historical representation, a kind of "affective mapping" of the past (in the words of Jonathan Flatley) that sees history as layered rather than linear, painfullly persistent rather than comfortably distant. I suggest that the film's melancholic architecture resists conventional logic and instead asks viewers to simply 'wallow' in affective longing for (and aversion to) a vexed past that casts a long dark shadow on the present. The film does not necessarily make an argument about the social world, so much as amplify the affective and palympsestic structure of the social world--one that is policed by artificial boundaries and haunted by the absent bodies and lost histories on which the modern wealthy city was built.