The American South, Through Time, in General Orders No. 9


Robert Persons’s experimental doc-poem on the evolution of the landscape of the South, from farmland to battlefield to homogenized urban space, is sure to inspire comparisons to The Tree of Life. Both films are marked by the juxtaposition of elegiac natural imagery with the cold architecture of contemporary commerce, interior monologue voiceover, allusions to Stan Brakhage, and bombastic musical punctuation (in the case of Persons’s film, some of it by indie ambient act Stars of the Lid). In dissolve-heavy montages that are meditative verging on somnolent, he combines still images, animation, and his own stunning cinematography of Georgia’s rural spaces and city highways. A ruminative narration (written by him in the first person, spoken by William Davidson) contemplates the U.S. as a massive space divided and districted through historical process, from continent to territory to state, all the way down to a single clock tower at the center of a single intersection. Much of this commentary, equally in awe of progress and suspicious of it, is strikingly sincere (“I can’t make sense of it,” the narrator says over a shot of steam billowing out of a factory; he later declares, “Let me have an ordinary place untouched”). But Persons also tinges his film’s surreal beauty with gentle humor. In one tableau, a tiny hand-drawn house is dwarfed by the city skyline; in another, an apparently animation-aided fish gasps desperately on land, its struggle out of water mistakable for lip-synching to the swelling score.