Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (1981)

2. Vernon, Florida

When I was a kid, here’s what I associated with the state of Florida: Disney World, beach front property, the retired and elderly, alligators, swamps, and hurricanes. In 2016, people associate Florida with meth, the most deprived of rednecks, and often unbelievably bizarre white trash shenanigans. I’m not sure if George Zimmerman or the Bath Salt Zombie deserve more blame for that. Anyway, Errol Morris was way ahead of snarky internet culture in realizing that Florida is weird and fucked up. “Vernon, Florida” runs just under an hour – which would normally exclude it from a Director’s Report Card but there’s no way I’m not discussing this – and takes place in the titular small town.

Vernon is a town in the northern half of Florida. As of 2004, only 757 people lived there. It’s a collection of several small buildings surrounded on all side by swampland. Errol Morris turns his camera on the residents of the town. By allowing the townsfolk to talk on camera, we see and hear some fascinatingly odd things. People make unusual proclamations about life, religion, God, death, philosophy, farming, animals, the rivers, crime, and outer space. In less than an hour, Morris captures the personality of the tiny town.

Errol Morris has been open about his original vision for “Vernon, Florida.” While investigating insurance fraud, the filmmaker discovered an especially brutal form of scam. People would mutilate themselves, usually by chopping off limbs, claim it was an accident, and collect on the insurance money. Claim adjusters tell of a town in the deep south nicknamed “Nub City” for how much of this fraud goes on there. After some searching, Morris realized that Vernon, Florida was Nub City. Initially planning on making a horror film about the town, this evolved into a documentary focused on the fraud. When the amputee-inclined residents threatened Morris – physically beating him, as the director claims – he changed his focus. This is why "Vernon, Florida" doesn’t have the thematic through-line that “Gates of Heaven” did. The movie is basically left over footage from a scrapped project.

Which, in this case, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead of documenting a horrendous string of self-mutilations, “Vernon, Florida” is devoted to documenting life in the sleepiest of Southern small towns. How sleepy is Vernon? The cops sit on the side of the road, in their car, watching in boredom as absolutely nothing happens outside. Presumably, there are some young people in Vernon. Mostly, the film just talks to the elderly. “Vernon, Florida” undeniably focuses on the town's eccentrics. Yet this gives us such a clear picture of the time and the place. I’ve lived in a few small towns. Though living rates vary, most of them are like this.

Despite its smaller scope, “Vernon, Florida” is, in some ways, a more elaborate film then “Gates of Heaven.” Morris doesn’t stray too far from his trademark InterroTron. Much of “Vernon” is devoted to people talking directly to the camera. However, there’s more editing. The film cuts between the different subjects, each one sticking to their particular interest of obsession. After a while, this begins to produce a comedic element. We cut from a man discussing God and the universe to a guy going on endlessly about turkey hunting. It’s a small change. Yet it’s still movement beyond the stationary and deliberate – some would say motionless and slow – approach the director took in “Gates of Heaven.”

You’re going to be hearing about turkey hunting a lot in “Vernon, Florida.” Of all the small town eccentrics Morris turns his camera on, Roscoe Collins seems to receive the most screen time. The man is obsessed with turkey hunting. It’s all he ever talks about. On the his front porch, he points to a collection of turkey feet and beards he has mounted. He tells the story behind each of them, full of bizarre, backwoods detail like his friend called “Snake” or getting lost in the woods. The final scene of the film has Roscoe riding down the river, looking at buzzards, and wishing they were turkeys. Despite constantly talking about it, we never actually see Roscoe successfully kill any turkeys. He stands in the woods, holding his shotgun, listening intently for turkeys that do not exist. Is he a nut? Or is living in Vernon just so boring that people fixate on hobbies this way? Either way, it’s oddly hypnotizing.

In “Gates of Heaven,” Morris was criticized for supposedly mocking the people he interviewed, an assessment I don’t truly agree with. In “Vernon, Florida,” however, Morris is definitely mocking his interview subjects. They’re so bizarre, their habits so odd, that they unavoidably become objects of mockery. Frequently, the Southern accents are so thick and slurred that you can barely understand what anyone is saying. An old man keeps animals in small sheds outside. He introduces a gopher tortoise by saying it’s not a turtle but a gopher, which is hilariously incongruous. He dangles a clearly displeased opossum by its tail. A farmer goes on about wigglers – worms infecting his orange trees – and how he’s an expert on the topic. A couple display a jar of sand taken from a nuclear taste site and insist that the sand grows. What does one say to stuff like this? Even if the real life eccentrics don’t know it, their antics are very funny.

“Vernon, Florida” isn’t just occupied with the off-beat beliefs and practices of small town Southerners. As in Morris’ previous film, he weaves unexpectedly deep themes through his seemingly trivial subject matter. As you’d expect, religion is a big deal in a place like Vernon. One of Morris’ interviewees is the youngest man in the film who quit his lucrative former job to do work for the local church. He discusses how God provides for him. Another lengthy sequence is devoted to a pastor delivering a rambling sermon, based around the word “therefore.” The filmmaker doesn’t seem to be judging these people for their beliefs. Instead, the film is presenting these odd views and opinions as natural expressions of unique personalities.

Allowing the cast of characters to talk about life present their individual views on the big issues. As a man steers his boat through the swamp, he details a time when he rebuffed an atheist. His view on God and existence is interesting, saying that the fact that everything exist is proof enough of a higher power. Another man shows off a blurry photograph he took of a star which segues into a conversation about space travel. He discusses a future where every culture can exist on its own planet. (Including, in a moment that produces some cringes, “colored” people.) Another member of town discusses, with a little too much enthusiasm, the time he saw a man get his brains splattered out of his skull. Through these interviews, normal people express their opinions on reality and death.

A part of me will always be curious about what the assuredly body horror-filled film about Nub City would have been like. Yet a loss can still be a gain. “Vernon, Florida” is a fascinating and frequently hilarious peak at a people who don’t normally wind up on camera. Though it’s unlikely to change your life, “Vernon, Florida” is unusually compelling throughout its short run time. Once again, just by pointing the camera at people and letting them tell their stories, Morris has created a movie not quite like any other. [Grade: A-]

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