Vernon, Florida (1981)

Directed by Errol Morris

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[EDIT: After I wrote about this movie I learned that Morris’ original intention was to go to Vernon, Florida because of its reputation as “Nub City,” a town full of maimed people who amputated their own limbs as part of an insurance scam.  The town had by far the highest number of such ‘accidents’ in America, including a guy who took out somewhere between 28 to 38 insurance policies before suddenly suffering an accident in which he lost his leg and subsequently received a payout of over a million dollars.  There was an investigation, and he didn’t have a good reason for why he happened to have a tourniquet ready to go when he lost his foot.  None of these people were ever charged with the scam because it was hard to convince a jury that someone would willingly amputate an arm or a leg.  Morris came to town to investigate, but he soon feared for his own safety when people were not eager to discuss this.  He ended up with the following series of interviews with people in town, painting an amusing, sometimes concerning view of the people who lived there without ever calling into question this history.  From what I recall, the people on camera each have all four limbs intact.]

Documentaries range from reality tv to Errol Morris.  At one end of the spectrum you have forced drama, producer intervention and moments made highly subjective based on a series of edits and voice over.  On the other end you have Vernon, Florida, a brief film consisting of mostly uncut interviews with older residents of a quiet community in Florida.

We never hear the voice of Errol Morris or anyone behind the camera, and when the subjects on camera are interviewed, we rarely cut away.  There is a single camera and thus, a single truth because it’s made clear that there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to massage, trim or alter what is said.

There is still subjectivity, of course.  Morris interviews a series of people and he decides who to show, when to show them and for how long.  There is only one instance in which I found a clearly deliberate juxtaposition of two interviews when one man alludes to the similarities between a camera and a gun and a cop then describes when his car was shot, with the bullet lodged in the front passenger seat.

Other than this I have no strong recollection of any directorial touches within the film.  We meet several characters and then return to them throughout the film.  The only time Morris’ presence is acknowledged (other than talking to the camera) is when one man, showing off a snared possum he was surely asked to show off, asks if he should return the possum to the cage.  And the fact that Morris included this is a small touch but it acknowledges his presence in such a way to make sure you know he isn’t hiding himself or his intervention in the story.  You know that Morris is asking these people about themselves, their thoughts, their community, etc.

These aren’t just people talking, but people talking to an outsider.  It could work as some kind of strange travel brochure.  These are the obsessions of the folks of Vernon, Florida, and this is how they talk to a visitor.

These aren’t conversations so much as rambling, occasionally philosophical monologues.  You have to enjoy the way the people speak as much as what they speak about.  The way one man, a hunter, says the word “up,” in his southern drawl delighted me, and I can barely remember what it is he was talking about.  They speak slowly but with a quiet intensity.  As they recount old stories, whether with a sense of warning or pride, you can see the years they’ve lived and how they have added up and funneled down to affect the way they speak and what they choose to speak about.  You can see the years in their faces like the rings of a tree trunk.

What I was reminded of was a discussion of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel centered around the influence of a writer, Stefan Zweig, and his effect on that film.  Anderson’s movies come from a singular voice or vision.  His worlds are of their own creation, very different from our own and in the case of Budapest and Moonrise Kingdom they take place in entirely fictional worlds.  This is the way one man sees the world extrapolated into something larger.  In the case of Budapest, the discussion (from the podcast Filmspotting) focused on this Zweig quote:

“The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite; these people, as unworldly as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world”

The ‘characters’ of Vernon, Florida tell us about their lives and the way they see the world by what they choose to discuss.  Their own filter reflects their own perspective.  They don’t talk about cultural violence or religion.  They don’t talk about sports or politics or anything beyond their community (though one does imply a belief in UFOs).  Their world is what’s around them, their community.  It’s as if they do exist in a world outside of our own even as it’s hidden right there in the middle.

This Morris film reminded me as well of a couple of Louis Malle documentaries, namely God’s Country, a 1985 film about a small farming community in Minnesota.  It’s a beautiful story, with much the same feeling as this one, but Malle puts himself in the story unlike Morris.  Malle is occasionally onscreen but always heard behind the camera, his questions included in the film whereas Morris left his out.

I love both films because each director seems to admire and revere his subjects, wanting to observe but never intrude.  Morris makes this clear just by choosing to make and release this film while Malle makes his respect for his subjects much more clear by explicitly stating it and depicting his friendship with many of the people he talks to.

On the other end of the spectrum of documentaries you have something like a Michael Moore or Werner Herzog film.  These are stories where the documentarian is himself the main character.  The way the documentarian sees the film is the way you should see it.  It’s an essay rather than a series of observations.  Going a step further, I suppose, you have documentaries which are about the documentarian.  The only one that immediately comes to mind is Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, though he used himself as a stunt to attract attention to a broader issue, obesity in America.

Vernon, Florida doesn’t try to make a point.  It ends as quietly as it begins, and it offers a feeling more than an idea.  This community is eerily silent, based on the impression I got from the film, and it’s a southern landscape similar to Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law.  The characters speak slowly, the crickets ‘crick’ loudly, and everyone lives in some kind of negotiated peace with each other because everyone is so immersed in their own world, their own concerns and obsessions that they don’t have time for other people.

This isn’t meant to be malicious, but it simply feels like this is a community of animals all following their own scent.  In this way they seem to live in a manner more pure than the rest of the world, following more primal instincts and curiosities and concerned with only what’s in front of their eyes.

Up Next: Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Gates of Heaven (1978), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

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