I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t afraid of Florida. It seems I can’t turn on my computer without reading strange news stories about a man dying in a cockroach eating contest or a sinkhole swallowing someone up in the middle of the night. I can not attempt to understand the level of strange things that seem to seep from the depths of that south-eastern State. Therefore, it stands to reason that one of the most fascinating and hilarious documentary films I’ve ever seen takes place and centers around the residents of a little town called Vernon, Florida. Unlike the last documentary I reviewed (or really any other documentary I’ve ever seen) this film has no real agenda, it doesn’t intend to show how people deal with a certain situation nor does it address a social issue. Instead of making some kind of political point, this film simply highlights a lifestyle that most people would consider odd.
Errol Morris delivers his second feature under some strange circumstances (seriously, everything about this movie is strange). Vernon, Florida was originally supposed to be titled Nub City in which he interviewed the inhabitants of Vernon discussing the town’s reputation for lobbing off their own limbs in order to make a living off of insurance. This had to be scrapped due to the fact that the people he interviewed threatened to murder him. Plan B was used and Vernon, Florida was born. Rather than focus on lost limbs, Morris simply allows the residents of the town talk about their lives and their hobbies. What emerges are some of the most bizarre conversations I have ever heard. The local worm farmer talks about his business and how if you want to get in to worm farming you might as well forget about what the library books say, because they’re almost all wrong. We hear a man who is more passionate about turkey hunting than anything else in the world. The pastor in the town delivers an entire sermon focusing on the worth “therefore”.
The format of the film is different from other documentaries in many ways, one of the most noticeable being the lack of narrative. While documentary films focus on real life, they almost always use something as a form of narration. In Vernon, Florida, we aren’t following one particular persons journey, we aren’t shown questions asked to interviewees, we don’t even hear any of the film crew. We literally sit there for almost an hour (it’s a very short movie) and watch the inhabitants talk. It’s an iffy move that wouldn’t work under most circumstances, however in this instance, the longer the people talk the more entertaining the film becomes.
Something that has become popular with reality shows is quick editing and sound effects. The editing deck allows the manipulation of circumstances to make people look favorable to the public or idiotic, all with just a few slices here and there. Almost all of what we see in “reality” TV is manipulated for the sake of ratings to the point where situations are so far from what really happened that the people in the shows wouldn’t recognize what’s happening on screen. Where modern reality shows mock the people involved, this documentary does not stoop to that level. We’re shown some of the most bizarre lifestyles and, honestly, some of the strangest individuals I’ve ever seen. And yet the filmmaker feels no need to mock them. This movie is hilarious, but it showcases a different lifestyle, one where the town is happy with their existence. The residents of Vernon freely give interviews and talk about their beliefs and their day to day life, for that Errol Morris delivers their story with long cuts and few edits to the public. It’s funny, but this movie is not there to humiliate the residents of Vernon, rather it’s there to give us a glimpse into a life that is hilariously different from our own, and most likely a whole lot simpler, which is something that almost anyone would want to have.