General Orders No. 9: Robert Persons by Montana Wojczuk

Montana Wojczuk chats with Robert Persons about his poetic new film General Orders No. 9, cartography, and Southern melancholia.

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All stills from General Orders No. 9 courtesy of Variance Films.

General Orders No. 9, the debut of filmmaker Robert Persons, has been 11 years in the making. The film is a non-narrative meditation on, roughly, the passage of time, the disappearance of visual remnants of history, the development of the city of Atlanta on once-rural land and finally the imposition of inanimate/false grids over organic structures. As with the best non-narrative filmmakers, Persons has found his own way to create structure in the film, dividing it into three main parts: rural, urban and an attempt to reconcile the two. This three-part structure is age-old (fairy tales, traditional three-act plays and films, even TV shows share it), but the images accrete meaning over time. The themes build up slowly, which is a pleasure because the photography itself is gorgeous. For pure visual pleasure the first half of the film has few rivals, it is the dream of the south on screen, the mossy trees, slow-moving rivers and creamy white flowers bursting into bloom in the dead of night. Whether this is meant to be the South as it once was or as it never was save in our collective imagination, Persons’ vision casts a powerful spell. One particular image stuck with me: the slow rotation of a music box’s brass drum, the little brass fingers playing over braille-like ripples on the surface, followed by a shot of a wide glassy river, light playing over the ripples as the music plays on.

After 11 years of work one might expect a filmmaker to have gone a bit wild, communicating his thoughts in an impenetrable language. The film that came out of Persons’ journey can be disorienting but thrilling, like visiting a new, strange planet. Persons has succeeded in adding some of his own words to our visual lexicon.

Montana Wojczuk I was curious, first of all, to know who wrote the poetic narration? You’re credited as writer, so I assume it was you?

Robert Persons Yeah, I wrote it.

MW And when in the process of making the film did you write it?

RP Well, I would say about half of the stuff I had written long ago and when it was time to start folding in the voice-over, during the editing process, I just went back in and started extracting things that I liked that I had written. I went back in and cannibalized old writing I had done and pulled out things that would serve the purpose and fit the film. The other half are things I wrote during the editing process. We would find we needed something here, we needed something there, I was writing up until the end. In other words, the script I wrote at the beginning, I wrote with no words. It was all of the shots, and the sequences, and the sections of the film, and I added the words later.

MW How did the sort of thematic—since I don’t want to call them totally narrative—elements of the film develop? Did they develop over several years? Is it something you kind of already had in mind from the beginning?

RP No, they developed over a couple of years. I had spent five or so years just collecting a lot of materials and images and ideas and struggled with trying to compose them or organize them in some shape. I wasn’t making a lot of progress and at some point I had a breakthrough where I connected the feeling I had to the images and that kind of gave me a thread to proceed. I created—it has sort of a three-act play structure and about five years before the film was finished I wrote a script that articulated the structure of the film and the themes as they progressed.

MW Is there a story behind the breakthrough moment? Making that sort of connection?

RP I started studying antique maps of Georgia and reading about that. There’s this sort of discipline in geography called cartographic expression, which just means: the way maps change over time or the way they politically change. You know, maps appeal to lots of different people for lots of different reasons, you can look at them from a purely historical basis and so on. But I started looking at these shapes, the shapes of the state, and of the townies of the state, and the town’s city limits. I started looking at the shapes on a purely geometric basis and to me the shapes kind of told a story. For example: a huge unbroken territory, which Georgia was originally, that was later partitioned and divided into smaller and smaller pieces as people moved into the state and so on—that to me as a metaphor represented a kind of diminishment of something, and in my weird way, I kind of connected that to the human condition or a spiritual diminishment. So for me the shape of maps started to have an emotional correlative to them and that was what gave me the thread to find my way through the material.

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MW You talked about the emotional correlatives. It also seems like you were reconnecting maps to the land that they were supposed to represent?

RP My biggest ambition, personally, was to create a cosmology in the form of a film. A cosmology is sort of a primitive way of looking at the world, the film is a linear medium so it doesn’t make a lot of sense; but I wanted to create an image of an imaginary world. So I tried to show a component part of that and tried to connect them visually with the CG animated parts of the film.

MW When did you decide to include the CG elements of the film?

RP That was from the beginning because I knew I wanted to show these changing shapes and show these ideal forms and variations of these ideal forms because that was part of the story. The first part of the film is a fairly straightforward history lesson in its own way, going from when Europeans first came to the southeast, all the way to the growth of the city of Atlanta. We have two or three CG segments that I just call map lessons, so there are these map lessons that just sort of illustrate things

MW With the CG, and the music, and the poetry, and the three act structure you are talking about, it seems like you really have a lot of ways that you are creating different kinds of narrative and pattern within the film. You talked about the maps creating or imposing upon the film in a negative way, so how did you create a pattern that sort of felt organic or diminished in that way?

RP I think I would say that the narrator has this sort of old school way of looking at the world where his hometown—and the center of his hometown—represent some kind of order with the courthouse being in the center of the town and the countryside surrounding. I think those people and that narrator felt some kind of solace in that that’s sort of the ideal memory that he has. Then when he witnesses these other cities—Atlanta—growing and spreading, that’s troubling to him on some level, he can’t get his head around that in terms of order. The film was trying to reconcile my desire for a sense of order or sense of unity within the world—it’s not possible to find that. The film is coming to terms with that disappointment and trying to find some comfort in that, or some reconciliation to handle that.

MW Did making the film help develop that reconciliation?

RP Not for me—I hoped it would. I think I made the film for myself and I hoped—the film initially was a ritual. The film is an experience to go through from beginning to end. It’s a ritual that yields a result. I guess I wanted that for myself, but the process of making a film is not a magical process all the time. I learned that any magic at all, is something the audience will experience and the director is cut out from that. So it did not work for me.

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MW It did have some very powerful moments, and I was thinking in particular—and you probably get tired of this as a southern writer and filmmaker—I was thinking that it had some Southern Gothic moments. I’m curious if you think you’re working at all within that tradition or is there something particular about the South that seems very key to your subject matter?

RP I think I understand your question. Everybody wants to do something new and everyone is intimidated by those who did it before you. I felt like there wasn’t anything in film that corresponded with the literature of the South and I wanted to do something in film to fill that gap. There’s a lot of things that I drew from, especially photographers whose work could be called southern Gothic, or surreal, that I was inspired by. It’s definitely riffing off some of their work.

MW Anyone in particular?

RP There was this—the earliest one was a guy named Clarence John Laughlin—he’s dead now—and later is William Christenberry and especially Sally Mann. Sally Mann did two series of photos in the south, in about the middle part of her career, and the mood of those photos really inspired the mood of General Orders. I wanted to do something hyper Gothic, you know, just to roll around in southern melancholia and try to come out the other side. It’s old, but it’s new. The subject matter is not original at all, but I hope something in the experience of it is new.

General Orders, No. 9 is screening on Thursday, June 30th at ReRun Gastropub Theater in DUMBO in Brooklyn, and will be touring select cities. Check here for more.