Despite the cheating teachers, the marble-mouthed Southern politicians and all the myriad other scandals and embarrassments that often define Georgia for the world at large, first-time director and Decatur resident Robert Persons aims to restore some dignity and grandeur to the state with his emotion-saturated experimental documentary “General Orders No. 9,” at Cinefest Theatre at Georgia State University. It runs August 12 to 22; Persons will answer questions at the 7 p.m. show on Saturday, August 13.
Something liminal, between a documentary and an experimental film, “General Orders No. 9” features wistful fugues on landscapes covered with dead winter kudzu, decaying barns and sentinel-like trees. The images make the land both spooky and serene, with its snakes and dogwood blossoms isolated and filling the film frame. The quiet, lingering succession of images offers a romantic treatment of a South more often typecast as a land of marauding rednecks and bad dreams, a la Rod Lurie’s 2011 retelling of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” Films such as “Junebug” and “The Apostle” have captured its cottony comforts and hellfire eccentricity, but this one strives for something lyrically unconnected from narrative.
Suggesting the iconic 1982 avant-garde disaster film “Koyaanisqatsi” directed by Ross McElwee or James Herbert, “General Orders” is a fugue in which the dreamy pastoral architecture of the South — trains passing through verdant, English-ivy-draped landscapes, decaying barns and mist-shrouded dales – collides with Persons’ view of the aberration of development.
He luxuriates in long takes fixed on these bucolic sights and a Georgia being crowded out by the concrete and sooty highways of “progress.” Those takes are given an added boost of melancholy, of a place lost in time, with a single, quivering note held on an organ. Narrator and Georgia-born writer William Davidson’s easy, melancholy drawl drapes Persons’ landscapes in an air of despondency, chronicling this place “where catfish are in bloom, where Uncle Remus came of age.”
The director begins his heady geography of place with a map of Georgia. In this conceptual establishing shot, he pictures a place arising from animal and Indian trails to become a civilization whose operative metaphor of order and community is the weathervane atop a regal small-town courthouse. The world radiates outward from that center point until it collides with the modern age of ugly strip malls, parking decks and Atlanta’s “Spaghetti Junction,” which epitomize, for Persons, a loss of center, community and place.
In his eyes, Atlanta is a horror of soulless skyscrapers and rivers of traffic without a center, a chaotic mess. Eerie, foreboding music lacquers recognizable views of the Georgia 400 highway and Interstates 75/85, which merge as they run through town. As in “Koyaanisqatsi,” Persons depicts the ruinous intrusion of a devouring form of civilization epitomized by the border-erasing Interstate Highway System. In his telling, the Interstate “has the power to make the land invisible to our attention.”
He makes his case for the romance and specificity of place by cherry-picking nightmare images of this dire placelessness. Seductive visions of green land give way to an ugly blight of Waffle Houses, orange traffic cones, big-box stores and sterile cinder-block hallways, which suggest some dystopian future already here. The pastoral is celebrated by making the city into a carnivorous demon that won’t tolerate the growth of more than a sad weed inching out of a crack in the concrete. In his fireside voice, Davidson intones, “In the city my heart was made desolate.”
Whether or not you see the city as exemplar of society’s decline, there is something to be said for the sentiment-shrouded, lyrical parade of imagery Persons uses to build his case that rural Georgia is a sanctuary, a source of beauty often overlooked in our frenzied pace. His ode to place is capable of inspiring deep longing or even homesickness, if you are unlucky enough to be residing elsewhere, for the wild splendor of a place so often taken for granted.
“General Orders No. 9″ opens and closes with a man’s hands sifting through a box of mementos (above), which recalls the opening credits of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as Davidson asks, “What is it that remains when each generation finds itself in unfamiliar surroundings, when an end comes to that that gives comfort?” Those hands sort through old, eroded bullets, broken pottery, dice, bird skeletons, bird carcasses. It’s an evocation of a cabinet of wonders: all the lost, departed things that this film clearly yearns to hold onto, like the Georgia landscape it so beautifully captures.