Years ago Robert Frost wrote a poem called “The Road Not Taken” which ends “…and I, I took the one less traveled by/and that has made all the difference.” All over the world well meaning literature teachers started going on about the poem’s meaning, how Frost was talking about being your own man, and striking out your own way, taking the less traveled path. Frost was horrified. “The poem is about the exact opposite,” he said. “For Christ’s sake, I told you in the title.”
Ever since I read that story I’ve taken titles very seriously. General Orders No. 9 takes its title from Lee’s letter or memo to his men following his surrender. Stripped of pussyfooting it says, “It’s over. We lost. Move on.” And I find a parallel to that sentiment in this deceptively quiet little movie.
I have never talked about a movie in this column, but I do act as a cheerleader for visual art and since this movie is certainly that, I choose to make an exception.
This is a very brave project and the simple fact that it was made at all amazes me. If you are from the southern United States and of a certain age this movie will strike you right between the eyes. I honestly don’t know how it will translate to others. I remember my wife’s surprise several years ago when she discovered that I consider myself a Southerner first, then an American. The Southern image carries an immense amount of baggage for white men and she simply could not match that image with the ultra liberal writer she’d married. People know in their hearts, because they’ve been taught to believe it, that all Southerners are stupid, ignorant bigots with little better to do than wait for their goiters to grow.
So, I’m not sure that everyone who watches this movie will respond as I did. Further, I come from the agrarian South. Today I know people in their thirties and forties who have never spent a single day outside a proper city. Oddly enough, they consider themselves erudite and worldly. Yet not so long ago the idea of one who had never been beyond his environment was almost the standard metaphor for the rube. It is an interesting switch, isn’t it?
This movie doesn’t like cities. I am not going to repeat a bunch of lines here. I went to watch the movie, not to take notes. It doesn’t say “Cities are evil” in so many words, but as a piece it makes it clear. The narrator speaks of the four-sided courthouse with a weather vane atop it all. The vane is the center of the world. It is the most rudimentary tool we have for talking to God. It is the harbinger of ass whippin’s, telling us which way the whippin’ is coming from. It is from a time when we as people tried to work with the earth. But even as we built we changed it, and nature took notice.
The four-sided courthouse is echoed by a dogwood blossom. April, the narrator tells us, is the season when something “pushes back,” when the earth strives to reassert itself and command our attention and respect. Much later in the movie when it talks about sitting in the ruins (and by then I take it to mean the ruinous state of our modern lives) we see a building destroyed by a tornado. By the date on the photo, April ’36, we can deduce this is the Gainesville tornado, part of the deadliest system of winds in the entire twentieth century. April, pushing back. The earth, reasserting itself. The whippin’ comes from the west.
The film posits an angry and frightening scenario, one in which the city will become the world and mankind will lose itself in the monstrous machine that is the urban blight. I do not see redemption in this landscape. A canoe loaded with books, human intellect, our genteel achievement, drifts on the current of the river bound for the sea. We will have no need to create, it seems to say. We will be far too busy keeping the machine alive.
At one point the narrator tells us the Lord loves a broken spirit; pray that we are well broken. This is a reference to Psalm 51:17. Two verses before David pleads for release from his “bloodguiltiness.” Bloodguilt is murder, and we are murdering posterity by serving the voracious appetite of modern cities. This movie is a plea to everyone to start thinking, now, about what you want from living. What do you want from the day? Surely there is more to existence than scrambling back and forth in our cars like maddened human tumbleturds trying to figure out where to push all our shit. Our bloodguilt is that the city is allowed to sprawl without relation to our needs who live within her, as if the city’s needs were greater than humanity’s. Our bloodguilt is that it is already too late.
The title tells us this movie believes we have lost. But it is not wholly without hope. It believes in the spirituality of the earth and its ancient totems, the magic of mystical communion. It cannot quite bring itself to give up on us.
For now it makes me feel better knowing that there are still artists out there willing to take a chance and try to share something with us, trusting our ability to be wrong about their purpose. I’m probably wrong about this movie altogether; I’m always getting these things wrong.
The movie says that the dead pray for us even as we pray for them and to them. There are more of them than us for whatever that is worth. Maybe some are praying I got some of this right, who knows.
Go see this movie if you can. There will always be some clown to bankroll the next Transformers movie. Movies like this need us. Go see it. And if you’re wondering about that Puka, that big bunny with the pipe, well maybe it will serve to remind you that Joel Chandler Harris was born in Eatonton,Georgia on a zip-a-dee-do-dah day. Go see the movie.