Vernon, Florida (1981)

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I’ve been a bit of a “movie shark” recently, consistently moving from one new film to the next, knocking out both classics that have been on my must-see list for forever and a day and also consuming the cinema offered up to us in 2012 to finish off the best of list I posted last week. Hopefully, I will get out of this mode soon as there are piles of movies that I want to revisit and also show to people for the first time, which, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite things to do. Since it is obviously impossible to watch a film again for the first time, the next best thing is showing a film you truly love to one of your friends or family for the first time, hopefully being able to live vicariously through them for an hour or so.

One of the plus sides of going through the “movie shark” phase like this is I get to see a lot of film in a short amount of time, and most of it is offbeat and picked up for extra cheap. Now that the DVD medium has become so damn inexpensive, I pick up most anything that catches my fancy if it’s under 5 bucks. If I don’t like it, I can trade it in at a couple of my regular movie-buying haunts for another movie, getting my wallet caught up in a particularly vicious cycle of commerce that only film buffs fully comprehend. Truly, it is a sickness; I know it, but I embrace it. One of my favorite places to pick up cheap flicks is Big Lots, where I can find long forgotten gems and an abundance of movies that I now wish I could forget. Luckily, Vernon, Florida, the second directorial effort by the legendary documentarian Errol Morris, turned out to be one of the best pickups I’ve made in quite sometime, and the fact that it was only $1.88 didn’t hurt either.

Up until I purchased the film, I had never heard of Vernon, Florida. Even my girlfriend, who spent most of her life in that particular state, didn’t know the town existed. Suspicious. Since everyone who shows up in the film ranges somewhere between charming in a mentally challenged way to full-on wackadoodle, and just to make sure Morris wasn’t trying to pull one over on me (yes, me specifically, 20+ years after he released the film. Diabolical, isn’t it?) by creating an entirely fictional town, I consulted Wikipedia and, yes, Vernon, Florida, does exist. I will provide you with these maps as evidence:

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Vernon is still a tiny town, just like it was when Morris pointed his lens at it all those years ago. According to the 2004 census the population clocked in at 757, up just 14 people from the one performed in 2000. Clearly, nobody moves to Vernon, but it appears nobody leaves either; the town seemingly exists as some type of muggy, critter-infested Florida limbo for anyone (un)lucky enough to be born there. Then there is the small matter of limb dismemberment. In the 1950s and ‘60s, this quiet, unassuming hamlet rose to prominence in the national consciousness due to the improbably high percentage of citizens who placed insurance claims on lost limbs, causing speculation that residents of the town were, in fact, dismembering themselves to collect some extra cash at an insurance company’s expense. During this stretch of time, the residents of Vernon accounted for as much as two-thirds of lost limb claims nationally, which is quite an impressive feat when your population is somewhere between 500 and 800 folks at the time, thus earning the nickname “Nub City*.”

As you could imagine, the citizens are a colorful bunch, which helps in transforming Morris’s documentary feature into a strange and utterly captivating piece of work, chronicling their obsessions with a deadpan, slight-of-hand style that doesn’t get in the way of the film becoming an involved record of the town’s colorful characters. Vernon’s memorable residents include a wildly enthusiastic group of turkey (the smartest birds in America, he enthuses!) hunters, one of whom who can recall each of his hunting achievements in such detail that could only be described as epic; the solitary local cop who seems to have learned the ins and outs of his trade by viewing cop shows, who is equipped with outdated equipment including a two-way radio that, since he has no counterparts, is used only to talk with his wife; and an elderly couple whose prize possession is a jar of sand collected from White Sands, NM, that they insist, thanks to radiation, had begun to multiply.

As with the rest of his filmography, Morris takes the simple approach of placing his subjects in their environment and only listening to the stories they wish to regale him with. This allows the residents to talk of their dreams, philosophies, superstitions, and fantasies in a surprisingly candor-filled fashion. In one of the film’s best scenes, you see and hear an old man pontificate on what a turtle he keeps in his backyard must be thinking about, and begin to realize you just got the Cliff Notes version of his life’s philosophy. This probably goes without saying, but the movie is often very funny. The aforementioned cop uses a bewildering array of law-enforcement jargon that makes it impossible to tell if he is joking or not, and in my personal favorite scene, we get to see Sunday morning church service with the local preacher, a man who appears to be in over his head (but enthusiastically so), giving an entire sermon on the significance of the word “therefore.”

Upon its release, Vernon, Florida received a fair amount of criticism, including allegations of making fun of its subjects, a charge I don’t exactly agree with as the film seems to have too much in the way of affection for the residents for that. Instead, I think Morris saw them as true American originals that’ve let their enthusiasms for wild, rabies-infested animals, worm farming, idioms, and Jesus run away with them. In truth, all they are trying to find in their eccentric obsessions is a way to make sense of their lives and the universe they find themselves in. All they want is to find a pattern in life that makes their existence worthwhile and worth living. In that way, the residents of Vernon are no different from the rest of us, it’s just the system they chose is skewed from the norm.

-David

*This was the original title chosen by Morris until several death threats from the townsfolk changed his mind.

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