A movie directed by Stephen Walker
A series of interviews with such unique citizens as an avid wild turkey hunter, an elderly couple who vacationed at a nuclear test site and returned with sand they insist is growing, a worm farmer, a 93-year old man who thinks his pet turtle is a gopher … see full wiki
Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida is an existential dilemma of sorts. The film is a bit less than an hour and allows a small group of extremely rural denizens talking freeform about themselves. The people likely to watch the documentary are going to be more educated and more sophisticated than the subjects or we wouldn’t know about the film at all. So the existential conundrum is how to react to Vernon, Florida: do you see the men (and one woman) as “rubes” exploited for an educated audience’s drollery (feeling a sort of sympathetic embarrassment); growing from that, do you see it as a probable cynically edited short film highlighting the most insane moments of otherwise only mildly imbalanced or even normal; or do you just take it as it is and laugh when it is indeed extremely funny? Obviously at four stars, I am more of the last category than not.
There are three main characters and a small number of minor characters whose stories are told in overlapping sections. Mr. Morris does not give the names of any of the people in his documentary (no marquee, no verbal mention, not even credits), so I’m stuck calling them by self-created titles. Main characters: (in order of appearance): the pensioner, the turkey hunter, the preacher. The minor: the brain scooper, the suicide clan, the gamekeeper, the policeman, the worm farmer, the fisherman, the couple
The pensioner is a befuddled former resident of Chicago. He sits on a bench outside the tiny town hall and starts with the story of buying a small house in the town but probably being a bit ripped off. That leads to a story of him sending money to a company you’d find in a pack of bazooka gum to buy a gemstone, being ripped off again. Later he’s at something that looks like a swamp, but he calls it a lake. Here he talks about how every star might be a world and “in the future maybe there’ll be one Irish world, one German world, one Russian world, one colored world . . . each party has its own world.” It is impossible not to laugh at that. It is also impossible not to slip into uncomfortable pity at his wandering mind that is close to the way Benjy Compson’s mind works in The Sound and the Fury
The turkey hunter is stuck in an idée fixe about hunting turkeys (duh). Despite this apparent mono-mania, he is entirely cogent. He isn’t funny, though. No one is purposely funny in the film, but he isn’t funny in any respect. This isn’t to denigrate the man himself; it is more a low-grade indictment of Mr. Morris. The hunter uses the term “double-gobble” that seems to be an important hunting sound, but, unlike the others, I never laughed. He is, however entirely likeable.
The preacher is the curious kind of what I call the presumably unintended selfish Christian. He claims he would make more money if he worked in a secular position, his words. But he follows it up with something strange that, in its own way, contradicts his otherwise obvious statement. He needed a van and a particular plot of land. He said “Lord if you want me to have these things, you’ll make it happen.” First off, duh, second off, a statement like that is the same thing as a passive-aggressive or at least somewhat manipulative way of saying “can I have it—gimmee-gimmee-gimmee.”
What makes him fit the general mold of the folks of Vernon, Florida according to Errol Morris is a pomposity of the not-clever thinking they’ve made a clever coup. He spends the sermon giving an incomplete and almost entirely wrong etymology of “therefore” as if he were explaining the intricacies of the word “vanity.” It is truly astounding instead of just a cousin of the word “so.”
The gamekeeper is a man in his nineties who claims he’d been bitten by every poisonous animal except a rattlesnake. He presents a possum that he was given because he “would know what to do with it.” Heaven only knows why the discoverers didn’t shoot the animal (I am not advocating it, but most people running into that sort of animal will shoot it if they can because the likelihood that it is infected with rabies is pretty high). I have to say that while he looks pretty frail, he’s able to hold a squirming and heavy possum by its tail and show no signs of obvious stress. He also shows a turtle that he found nearby but that it was well out of its habitat, preferring places not so close to water and places farther north that that part of Florida. Netflix (but it is not the only culprit, just the most commonly read) seriously misreports his turtle-epistemology: he calls it a gopher. Netflix says he is “a 93-year-old man who thinks his per turtle is a gopher.” He thinks no such thing since the animal is a gopher turtle. I have to guess that no one filming it bothered to determine that there is such a beast, simply assuming the old man was insane. He’s old but he isn’t crazy enough to mistake a turtle for a gopher.
The brain scooper says he has, as the name implies, scooped up human brains. Given his analysis of the anatomy and function of the brain, his veracity is tenuous. He claims the brain has four bowls and that if “all bowls are functioning, you don’t have a one-track mind, you have a four-track mind.”
The suicide group is a couple of old men sitting outside a country store discussing whether it is possible to blow your brains out with a shotgun using your thumb instead of a big toe—with pantomime to try to illustrate their points.
There is the mumbling policeman that explains being shot at. His assessment was that the people that did it were probably just trying to get his attention—the bullet was way to close to where he sat to be just some kind of attention-getter. In a similar vein to the turkey hunter, the worm farmer and fisherman are not particularly funny. There is also nothing to separate them as more crazy than their counterparts in every rural area.
The couple gathered a jar of sand from White Sands, New Mexico—part of the atomic testing area in the desert Southwest. They are convinced that it is nuclear sand and that it grows. They say that the sand in the desert “crawls.” The park in White Sands uses a sweeper and a grader to work to keep the sand from covering the roads. Most of us understand that wind makes that happen. However, the couple offered further proof by saying sand “runs out an average of fourteen feet a year.” A slightly more sane person would realize that they mistook the word if not just made it up themselves. Instead of crawl, it most likely expands the desert by “fourteen feet a year” according to the man. “It’s growing sand,” he says, “sand grows.” The final proof is a nearly full jar of sand that the woman said only held a little bit she originally harvested. Apparently it crawls up the side of the jar and will fill it up in 2 years.
I’ve quoted quite a bit, but it is really just one moment in each of these stories that is truly funny. There is certainly a level of meanness, maybe even more than I want to admit, but I found it impossible not to laugh. But if none of what I’ve said sounds funny, then even at less than an hour, it will be a waste of time.
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