Long before I moved to Florida, I knew there was a lot more to the place than Disney World, Miami Beach, Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale, thanks to this Errol Morris documentary.
“Vernon, Florida” was the deadpan follow-up to the equally deadpan “Gates of Heaven,” about the then-rare phenomenon of pet cemeteries.
Here was “Cracker” Florida, far from the interstates, the beaches, theme parks and “progress.” This little panhandle berg and its quirky characters were immortalized, Yankee transplants talking about living cheap, a turkey-hunting/turkey-obsessed hunter all dolled up in camo 25 years before “Duck Dynasty” cemented its position along America’s rural/urban political divide.
There’s the critter-coddler with his gopher tortoise and opossum expertise, the “red wiggler, naht-crawler” worm farmer and the “historian” who knows little or nothing about a town he must have moved to upon retiring.
“Vernon” started life as a genuine piece of documentary journalism, about the town’s grimly comical connection to insurance scams that involved people injuring themselves, losing limbs for high-dollar settlements. The film “Nub City” was abandoned, according to legend, after death threats made to the filmmaker.
This was decades before “Redneck Welfare,” Social Security disability scams in rural America, became commonplace.
What Morris turned out instead was a meditation on small-town eccentricity, nothing more exciting than the old mosquito smoker truck working the few streets, the tedium of police work calling in to get the correct time (“That’s a big 10-4, appreciate it.”) or the mundane work of mounting a tire.
The music is the rhythm of country speech, “Kilt my first turkey when I was 10,” seeing “the perfection of God Himself” in a swamp and “Ever see a man’s brains?” The faces are of old white men, a couple of younger ones (and one old woman), barely a full set of teeth on any of them.
The film’s on-the-cusp-of-patronizing tone is “therefore” coupled to the racism and sexism of omission. If it isn’t aging well, those are the reasons. It feels less a portrait than a parody, all these years later.
I have to say, though, my experience visiting, reporting on and interviewing folks in small towns in Florida far-removed from the interstate hasn’t exactly given the lie to the Errol Morris caricature. After cable TV, the drug boom, the real estate busts and booms, there are still little backwater villages just like this one.
Morris, a onetime private investigator, popularized documentaries where the subjects weren’t just observed, cinema verite style (“Grey Gardens,’ etc), they were questioned by an unseen, unheard (in most of his films) interviewer.
Morris went on to win long-overdue recognition from the Academy, making “The Unknown Known,” “The Thin Blue Line” and “The Fog of War,” among many other theatrical films and TV documentaries.
“Vernon, Florida” inspired generations of documentary filmmakers, a classic example of finding the unusual, the comical and anachronistic right under your nose, if you can stop looking down your nose for it.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Albert Bitterling, Roscoe Collins, George Harris, Snake Reynolds
Credits:Directed by Errol Morris. A WNET/Netflix release.
Running time: :55