General Orders No. 9: Not Quite an Elegy to the South

Sometimes a documentary can be too clear—too many experts, too many graphics, too many pins in the butterfly. Previously seen here at SIFF '10, Robert Persons' oddball doc about urban sprawl and Southern U.S. history is an entirely different breed, a poetic film of fragments and long-held images, musty relics and partially excerpted old speeches. The title comes from Gen. Robert E. Lee's farewell address to his defeated troops, but the elegiac tone hardly seems like a tribute to the Confederacy and its injustices. Quoth the narrator, "The Lord loves a broken spirit; pray that we are well broken." Is this Lee's language or Persons'? We're left to guess. What's being mourned is the old, simple hub-and-spoke model of county seats and dusty roads connecting farmsteads. The North isn't the enemy; paved highways and interstates are. And the old agrarian South, with its underlying economic engine of slave labor, can't be revived or eulogized. "You are not a witness to the ruin," we're told. "You are the ruin." There's no going back, only documentation, only tracings on the old map. The mood is rueful, like a cross between the movie Junebug and the band Lambchop: a hymn sung at a funeral for someone you never knew when he was living, but you're sad to see dead.

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