I live in the southeast, so I’m used to southern culture. We have our share of “rednecks,” but aside from the accents and political leanings, much of the local flavor isn’t too different from any other medium-sized city. Because it is nearby, we visit Florida somewhat frequently as a getaway. It is often dubbed the “Redneck Riviera.” Sure, you get a lot of transplants, tourists, and there’s a large Latin American and Cuban population, but there are also plenty of homegrown locals. On every trip, we’ll encounter some weird local. Generally, the further south we go, it becomes less “redneck” and more multi-cultural.
The panhandle is a different breed entirely. I’ve only been there a handful of times, and it has more in common with Alabama and Mississippi than Tampa and Miami. Vernon, Florida, is just like any southern town out in the middle of nowhere. Having been to many of those, I can testify that there are some unique, backwoods characters, and many of them are not among the intellectual elite (although I do know some highly intelligent people living in small southern towns). Morris chose Vernon by accident, but many of the same type of people could be found in almost any southern town of the same size.
While Gates of Heaven had a narrative arc, it also had quirky and unique characters with stories to tell. Vernon, Florida sheds the narrative and focuses instead on the colorful characters in this small Florida panhandle town. To call the characters quirky is an understatement. They are sheltered, naïve, and passionate about their worldview, but it is far from metropolitan. The subjects that Morris interviews are far from the most intelligent bunch, and Morris seems to go out of his way to portray their ignorance. While at times these characters are humorous, at others their simple nuggets of wisdom are endearing.
“You ever seen a man’s brains?” asks one of the residents, randomly, and then goes into how they are contained within four bowls around the circumference of the skull (aside from “bowls,” these are my words, not his). “You are not a one track mind. You are a four track mind,” he says, and then he goes on to explain the thesis. Like many of the interviews, at first the reaction is ‘WTF?’ and as the diatribe continues, it keeps on getting more absurd. That’s the essence of Vernon, Florida. It is a lot of people saying strange, kooky, and dumb things.
Even Ray Cotton, the preacher, is not immune to being taken to task. He is developed as a nice, honest guy, who decided to spread the word of the Lord for less money rather than take up a more lucrative profession. However, when he preaches, he is yet another source of humor. He begins by talking about the word “therefore,” and how Paul uses it quite a bit. He had to look up the definition of the word in Webster’s dictionary, and finds that it is a conjunction. He then has to look up “conjunction,” and that leads to him looking up other words. He does come around to a point, but he takes an extensive journey through the world of Webster in order to get there.
One of my criticisms, which is more of a minor quibble, is that Morris spends too much time with turkey hunter Henry Shipes and his friends. Henry has his quirks, such as when he gives a contradictory statement about whether to go after turkeys when there’s a hen present. He also has some more cinematic moments, such as when they go out on the boat to try to find a nest of turkeys. Compared to the remaining characters, he is the least interesting, and he does not say much for the town other than the fact that people hunt wild turkeys.
There are plenty of other motley characters and they all share their own bit of warped wisdom. One of the most memorable quotes for me was a guy talking about Wigglers, who says, “I never studied no books about these wigglers. What I know ‘bout ‘em is just self experience. Uh, they’ve got books on ‘em. Them books is wrong.” There’s also a police officer, who frankly seems bored. There’s a guy who is boggled by the concept of jewelry, and another who pontificates on random things happening.
Errol Morris is, of course, an intelligent and well-educated individual. While he can be seen as exploiting these people for their simplicity, the joke is occasionally on him. In one scene, he interviews a couple about how they brought some sand back from vacation and put it in a jar. Over the years, the sand subsequently grew. “In a couple of years that jar will be full,” the man says. What? Sand doesn’t grow, so this initially looks to be another example of their Vernon stupidity. Morris found out later that there are certain types of sand that can absorb moisture and will gain in size, especially when moved to a different climate. There is another scene where a man calls a turtle a “gopher,” and initially we again think he is confused or just stupid. What’s not mentioned is that there is such a thing as a Gopher Tortoise. In his defense, Morris possibly knew about the tortoise and this may have just been a random comment that people picked up on. Despite the gopher comment, the gentleman’s speech about turtles is quite entertaining.
While it is enjoyable to meet these characters and hear their words of wisdom, as I noted, there is not a point of narrative. The film meanders and is basically a portrait of a small town with quaint, folksy people, who seem foreign to the art-house cinephiles who would see an Errol Morris documentary. It is an enjoyable way to spend an hour, but it does not compare with some of his best work.
Film Rating: 5.5/10
Errol Morris: Interview from 2014.
Morris talks about the genesis of this project. At first he intended to film a documentary called “Nub City.” This was an area in Florida where they had the highest rate of insurance fraud, most of which were from people who blew off an arm or a leg in order to collect the insurance money – hence the “Nub” part of the nickname.
He was warned that “Nub City” at night because it was too dangerous. At first Morris found it not too dangerous, but fabulously weird. He interviewed some insurance fraudsters and for the first time in his life, he got beat up. In hindsight, “it was sort of unpleasant,” he says.
The real “Nub City” is Vernon, FL. Rather than risk life and limb, he instead just started talking to the locals and he found the characters engaging. This explains why the film lacks a subject, thesis or narrative. As Morris puts it: “I just love these guys. So I made this movie.”
This is the second film in the disc with Gates of Heaven, so the rating below is for both discs combined. Gates of Heaven is both the better film and has the better extras, especially because of the Les Blank documentary. While Vernon, Florida does not measure up, it is basically a second movie for the same price.
Criterion Rating: 8/10