My first film at Hot Docs 2010 was the experimental documentary feature General Orders. No. 9 by Robert Persons.
General Orders opens in silence as hands from an unknown owner remove trinkets of the past from a drawer - bullet shells, the skeletal head of a bird. The discovery of these small treasures sets the stage for the rest of the film - a poetic montage of the history of a decaying land. The screen is soon flooded with image after image of tranquil Georgian townships - places that seem almost out of place in most of our urbanized lives. A voice with an old southern drawl explains the history of these towns with the aid of stylized black and white maps - where the roads met, that's where the towns were built - like the centre of a wheel. At the centre of town, there was the courthouse, and on the courthouse the clock tower. Finally, perched on the clock tower was the weather vain.
Much of the film plays off of this idea of division of land as a metaphor for it's eventual dissolution. As we are shown beautiful landscapes and the simplicity of lives and towns once popular, we are reminded by the author that this common way of settlement is being lost in the construction of urban high rises and cemented freeways. The filmmaker relies heavily on juxtaposition and montage to create an almost picture book film which he speaks over as the voice of God. But herein lies General Orders' main issue. The narration is a prime example of taking what could be a beautiful collection of images to tell a story, to something far more pretentious and unnecessary. The director's internal ramblings become so forced and vague that the story becomes less about the subject than him attempting to be artistic. His many musings throughout leave the viewer confused and searching for their meaning, even if they are not as important as what, maybe, saying nothing at all could say.
This type of "artistic overkill" is also seen in a fast montage near the end of the film of photographs from around 1900 escalating towards images of urban decay. Set to a score that could have been from a horror film, it became a wildly erratic way of forcing the film's message down our throats one more time. It didn't serve a purpose for the film, yet came across as a way for the director to flex his filmmaking muscle. Like the land of which General Orders speaks, the beautiful pictures that construct a documentary are sometimes best left alone.
2 1/2 out of 5