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Grade: A-Vernon, Florida (1981)

Director: Errol Morris

Stars: Albert Bitterling, Claude Register, Snake Reynolds, Henry Shipes

Release Company: MGM

MPAA Rating: NR

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Morris: Vernon Florida


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Until MGM produced an Errol Morris DVD box set, his1981 documentary, Vernon Florida, was rarely found in video stores. If you've seen Gates of Heaven about pet cemeteries, you'll be prepared for this all too brief documentary about ordinary people living in a sleepy little southern town. Once again Morris proves "ordinary" people reveal some very bizarre stories when left on camera long enough.

Even though each of the people are dead serious, these townsfolk will have you laughing and chuckling all the way through, and you'll end up telling friends about them long after the film is over. What a menagerie of characters—the "brain" expert who demonstrates how you can do five things at once; the small time zookeeper who kick-starts his turtle; the proud red wriggler worm farmer who has lost his imported Midwestern nightcrawlers to the swamp; and the preacher who gives a lame sermon/dictionary lesson on the word "Therefore." We also meet a candidate for the world’s most patient policeman—a man who watches over this sleepy little hamlet with the sole goal of being visible enough to slow down the traffic.

But there’s even more. One of the funnier bits involves a couple who proudly show their travel pictures of a trip to White Sands Monument in New Mexico, and then the wife brings out a Mason jar 2/3 full of white sand. They are convinced that the sand is growing inside the jar. Let's see, it’s been 19 years now, so I’m sure the white sand has expanded and taken over their kitchen by now. (Hey, if we find traces of formic acid in their bodies, they may have smuggled some radiated ants from Them with their souvenir)

My favorite character is the obsessive turkey hunter. Morris shows this guy and his turkey-hunting friend prowling their favorite wooded spot, listening intently for the telltale sounds of double gobbling. They look pretty goofy decked out in camouflage in search of the big birds, but it's even more amazing to hear this guy ramble on and on about the joys of turkey hunting.

He doesn't bag any turkeys or even shoot at any, but it's a kick to hear incredibly detailed descriptions about how he stalked and hunted down the prized turkeys that he has memorialized with a plaque that has three pairs of turkey feet and their "beards." One humorous note occurs when our big game hunter meticulously counts the 20 or so buzzards roosting in a swamp tree, comparing the sound of their wings to that of his beloved turkeys. A little later I almost fell off my sofa when he recounts a really bizarre instant diarrhea cure.

Vernon Florida is typical Errol Morris fare, which is anything but typical--Morris uses documentary footage much like Far Side's Gary Larson uses drawing paper. No one else records the wacky people that Morris documents and even "semi-normal" people appear to be alien beings when Morris records them.

With a camera style reminiscent Bergman with his long closeups on faces to reveal character, Morris' camera occasionally pulls back silently for poignancy or humor by placing the character into his environmental context. Take the first retiree, who tells about settling into Vernon from the Midwest because he was able to get a good deal on a house. After relating how he enjoys life in the small town, Morris gives us several seconds of a long shot framing the man just sitting silently in the middle of the sleepy little town (Florida—"God's Waiting Room").

Unfortunately the documentary lasts only 55 minutes, but the great turkey hunter creates a long lasting character along with the other Vernon residents. This is a difficult video to locate in regular rental locates—far too quirky and offbeat for most video stores. But Vernon Florida is well worth tracking down, and I'd certainly rather watch Morris' film than visit the actual place. However, if I ever do get to this Florida panhandle location, I do want to check up on the couple with the expanding jar of white sand.


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