Errol Morris’s 1982 documentary Vernon, Florida, is rife with a great backstory; one that is interesting as the quirky townsfolk it portrays, This was Morris’s second stab at the documentary form- after his earlier Gates Of Heaven, and it detailed the ramblings of a number of wacky folk from the town. Initially, the legend goes, Morris was drawn to Vernon- a Panhandle town, because, over the prior quarter century dozens of residents had taken up the bizarre practice of cutting off assorted limbs of theirs to collect large insurance payments. The working title of the film was Nub City, but Morris changed the title and focus once several people threatened his life. Morris is said to have chimed in, ‘They literally became a fraction of themselves to become whole financially.’ Yet, the truth is that the sorts of wacky folk portrayed live all over America, and the world- I saw them growing up in New York City, I’ve seen them in Midwestern suburbs and Great Lakes fishing towns, as well as the heart of Texas. Thus, the thing that I found the most interesting was that this 56 minute long film was not originally a theatrical release, but made for WNET, the New York City public television station. Given how formulaic most PBS documentaries have become in the quarter century since this film’s release, that, alone, is a fact worth pondering.
Morris takes the good tack of simply allowing the subjects to speak on and on, without even formally posing questions, to the point of overreaching their limited intellectual means and providing unexpected humor for the viewer. Simply put, the parade of anecdotes simply has to be seen and heard to have full effect; mere description cannot do justice to them. We never get scrolls that identify the people by name- that is only given at film’s end, yet we still have no idea which name belongs to which wacko, so I won’t even attempt to delineate them. There are a couple of gonzo turkey hunters- one named Snake, and the other one of whom tells the tales of how he got the turkey foot trophies he keeps stuffed on his wall, and does so with a seriousness befitting a prophet; that’s when he’s not discoursing on cures for diarrhea: ‘That’s the best diarrhea medicine in the world. You hear a turkey gobble, you forget all about diarrhea and everything.’ There is the old man who has a cage where he keeps tortoises and opossums, the worm farmer (or breeder?) who claims, ‘They got books on them (the worms), but them books is wrong,’ there is the local cop who spends his day yawning in his patrol car and looking for speeders to pull over once they cross the bridge into town. He seems to be proud of himself for maintaining a high enough level of visibility so that locals know not to speed. What other film allows the master of a speedtrap the opportunity to alibi for his profession?
If that’s not enough, there’s a man who believes that if he prays hard enough, the Lord will see to his happiness, as well as a couple that collects sand in a jar that’s about half full, yet they claim they only put a few grains in years ago, and that the sand is growing and will soon fill the jar. How is explained, I think, by its being radioactive sand they scooped up at White Sands in New Mexico, where nuclear testing was done. Naturally, it makes no sense, even if the looks on the couple’s faces are priceless. Then there’s the man who looks over a swamp and relates the joke of the first two men who saw the swamp. The first says, ‘That’s alot of water,’ and the second says, ‘Yeah, and that’s just the top of it.’ That’s it- that’s the joke. Later on, the same man opines that somewhere up in the night sky there will one day be a planet where all the Irish, Germans, Russians, and Coloreds go to, and they will all have their own planet. How he got on this topic is a mystery, but entertaining nonetheless. Then there are the three old coots who argue over just how another man committed suicide.
Perhaps the most hilarious scene comes when a faronzaled minister tries to reveal something deep that he’s read in the Bible, but once he reveals it he is shown to be an obtuse moron of the highest order. The minister is utterly fascinated with the use of the word therefore in one of the books of the Bible, so he counts off its usage (over a hundred times) and then speaks on how he looked up the meaning, usage, and origin of the word, yet, once he’s done elucidating, he has made not a single point worth revealing, nor has he moved his congregation, even when he tries to be funny by telling them they need to have an experience with therefore like he did. It truly is a moment out of a Marx Brothers film, save for no Groucho.
Yet, despite the droll humor that unexpectedly spews from these wackos’ mouths, the humor revealed is all of the sort that makes the viewer laugh with the characters, not at them, and that’s a cogent point, for the former option removes this film from documentary to satire, while the latter (which the film adheres to) keeps it a documentary in the truest sense of the word- even if some of the town’s residents, who did not make the final cut, claimed that Morris slandered their burg by focusing on only the wackiest people.
The DVD is part of an Errol Morris DVD box set which includes Gates Of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line. The camera work by cinematographer Ned Burgess is simple- many static takes for each interviewee, but the soundwork on the film is not good. Too often the speakers are drowned out by passing vehicles or other sounds, and one has to turn the volume on the tv up to nearly 100 just to hear people speak at normal levels. There are only a few trailers for other DVDs as a bonus feature, all for other MGM titles: Errol Morris’ First Person- The Complete Series, Coffee And Cigarettes, The Saddest Music In The World, and Kitchen Stories.
It is not the deepest nor most well crafted documentary ever committed to film, and there are no moments that are life changing. But, there are little nubs and quotes that will return to you like a bad case of gastritis. Ok, so Vernon, Florida is not a film that produces rhapsodies in the viewer, but, like a raging inferno in a building, whilst watching it, try to turn away. I dare you.