Vernon, Florida

Directed by Errol Morris

My Rating:

The trippiest of trips to a reality called Vernon.

Bitable Bytes:
"Terribly backwater!"
"Fascinating and eye-opening!"
"I am confronted by my own judgement!"
"You can almost hear Morris snickering behind the camera."

What to do while watching:
Unless you are one of the very small minority that would relate to the dozen or so denizens of Vernon, portrayed in this documentary, simply marvel at how different people can be.

What to eat while watching:

Errol Morris is a subtle documentarian compared to Michael "Roger and Me" Moore or Barry "Beyond the Mat" Blaustien. In Fast, Cheap, Out of Control, he lets his subjects do the talking and it is only through the freedom he gives them and the skill with which he portrays their passions that you know he feels a certain awe for the four nerds in that more recent film. In Vernon, Florida, an earlier documentary from Morris, the comment on the part of the director is meaner. Here, he has less budget, so the pictures do not in any way flatter the subjects. Indeed, they'd be hard to flatter. The editing points toward the dingier and dingy-er side of the denizens of this small Florida town, and if you listen, you can almost hear Morris snickering behind the camera.

But though their modes of speech and their interests would seem terribly backwater to any urbanite, the Vernonians are given room to preach and to talk; and this suggests that, strange though they are to 99.9% of the US demographic, Morris at least would like them to be heard.

There's not much to do in Vernon, apparently. We meet a kind of park-bench Joe with a high-pitched voice who talks about everything and nothing. He carries in his pocket photographs of stars that he took by holding an opera glass up to his camera. He confesses that the pictures aren't very good, and yet the photos are curled and torn enough to suggest that he's carried them around and shown them quite a bit. Park-bench Joe tells jokes and laughs, his voice unlike anything I've heard.

We also get some tales of the great wild-turkey hunter, a man who has turkey hunting in his blood. This guy has three sets of wild-turkey feet and wattles mounted on his porch. He gives the viewer every subtle detail about listening for the gobble, moving in slowly, tracking the birds, killing them. His expertise is completely wonky: talking about it makes him look insane, and yet, the fact that he can gauge a bird's weight by the depth of its track attests to his experience and attention to this hobby.

There's a very old man who tells animal stories, like the one about the ancient mule that died. They rolled his carcass into the lake and fish used it as a habitat. He would drop his line into the carcass to catch them, but sometimes would snag a donkey rib instead. This man has a cage with a turtle in it and another with a possum. He holds the possum by the tail, lets it try to drag itself away on the ground, and continues to pull it back by the tail. He watches the turtle crawl for a bit, then nudges it with his foot to give it a boost. It's like watching a boy half-torment unwilling pets, except this guy is in his late sixties.

There's another old man whose thick glasses make him look like a lemur. He rows a canoe among the everglades at dusk and talks about God. There is actually a lot of talk about God, including discussion from the carpenter/preacher who gives a whole sermon about the word therefore without ever actually understanding what the word means. Did you know that in one of Paul's sermons, he uses the word therefore 119 times! This sermon, for me, was the most telling section of the film. It was laughable to me, which brings me, perhaps, to Morris' point: I am suddenly confronted by my own judgement and its source.

Regardless of this preacher's breadth of lexicon or skill at articulation, it is clear that he is earnest and fully present in what he is doing. Who am I to think him a hick? Well, he is a hick, but my judgement around that, my assumption that he is stupid, is perhaps the invisible theme that deepens a viewer's experience of Vernon.

I think it's easy enough just to laugh at these very strange people in this very strange little town. But I wonder how ridiculous my life would look to an audience from Vernon.

I like that this film does not give an answer or a stance. The portrayal, though edited, is pure enough to stand alone. It's fascinating to watch people who are so different from myself, and also fascinating and eye-opening to witness my own reaction to them.

I'd recommend this film because it is so different from most of what is made today. Also because it's worth some chuckles: not easy laughs, but some deeper belly laughs that resonate with sociology and psychology.

A tip of the panhandle to Mark Sinclair, artist of post-it theater, for the recommendation.

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For your collection: Vernon Florida, (out of print, but start your search here)

Gooden's listening to: Queen Ida's Cookin' with Queen Ida

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