Jun 15, 2018
Welcome back to Film Buff Fridays! Today’s classic film is also a documentary, about a little town called Vernon, Florida. If you haven’t seen this documentary, be prepared to learn just how crazy the residents of Florida can be. I should know; I was born there. Interested in another film by Errol Morris? Check out Episode #021 (“The Thin Blue Line”). Or perhaps another small town with some questionable residents? Check out Episode #144 (“Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills”). And if you have any other suggestions, let us know at onemoviepunch.com or on Twitter and Facebook.
Today’s movie is “Vernon, Florida” (1981), the second documentary from Errol Morris, the genius behind “The Thin Blue Line” (1988). The film follows around the residents of Vernon, Florida, as they relate stories from the past and wax philosophical about a variety of topics. The film helped solidify Morris as a major documentarian, although he would be snubbed by the Oscars for another couple decades.
It’s hard to calculate the effect of the Internet on today’s world, but I find watching old documentaries helps me appreciate how far the Internet has permeated society. Prior to the Internet, we didn’t have a way to verify anything we were told, aside from being lucky enough to be close to a major library with an effective interlibrary loan. It was the television or the radio or the library, and socially speaking, we trusted those around us more than we trusted any of those media, for better or worse.
In the case of rural America, for the most part, it was for the worse. Much like “The Thin Blue Line”, Morris went to the town for a different reason, but what he found seemed much more compelling, and changed the direction and focus to spotlight this tiny town between Pensacola and Tallahassee in the Florida panhandle. Small towns have a way of consolidating beliefs, creating a conformance in their narrative that comes through in “Vernon, Florida”, but there’s also a surprising diversity of views as well. It would be interesting to return and see just how far the homogenization has progressed, since the town still only has 734 residents, and to see what the effect of the conservative media machine might have had to further homogenize and perhaps even radicalize the residents.
Morris lets the residents speak for themselves, on topics like hunting, mail order, murder, worm farming, God, and the land around them. It’s almost like a cut-up YouTube playlist, not making any proclamations at all, just a stream of segments related only by locality. The interviewees were probably placed in front of cameras for the first time, trying to be natural while putting their best foot forward, playing to the camera only a little bit. Many have criticized Morris for taking advantage of the locals, but I’m not so sure, because as much as I disagree with some of the racist and protectionist views of the residents of the time, I also believe very few people would have even asked them for their views.
“Vernon, Florida” (1981) is a short, insightful documentary into a small Florida town, which has its own stories and views among its residents. However, Morris transforms those individual stories into a story for the entire town, one that changes based on the politics of the viewer, because we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. If you want an honest look into small town America in the early 1980s, then definitely check out this film.
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
One Movie Punch: 7.4/10
“Vernon, Florida” (1981) is not rated and is currently streaming on Netflix.