The story goes that director Errol Morris, preparing his second documentary, a follow-up to Gates of Heaven (1978), encountered a killer story in a small American town. Vernon, Florida was home, it seems, to a small but growing band of out there folk intent on lopping off the odd limb or two to claim insurance money. Smelling a juicy documentary in the works, Morris pounced but soon found his own life threatened should he appropriate details of their plan for the purpose of broader distribution. The director necessarily backtracked but still felt compelled to hone in on some of the town’s other residents, perceiving another interesting take on a shiftless place built on the colourful collective bursts of sporadic insights that both illuminate and muddy the shape of things in etching the life of a backwoods community.
The resultant 55 minute film, Vernon, Florida (1981) is a slow-moving, curiously compelling portrait of aimlessness and a strange devotion to the indefinable art of rambling. There are no articulate, insightful reminiscences, only a spate of locals whose verbal tics and storytelling gifts drift beside and well beyond the point. A turkey hunter provides the richest, lavish detailing in his tales of stalking that account for countless hours of futility, though the rows of creepy trophies he keeps lovingly tacked to his wall attest to the artful endurance of his gifts.
Deadly earnest in their telling, the lives of these locals prove to be authentic oddities, no less relevant for the decaying milieu and sociological context they pinpoint and illuminate in jagged, fragmentary recollections. A pertinent query – and one we might instinctively supress in our mind if it weren’t for the insistent, recurring nature of its source – might be, are these simple folk of sound mind? There seems ample evidence to the contrary but in sketching Vernon through its residents, Morris has constructed, modestly, an endearing confirmation of these lives in their time and place. An open air asylum it may seem, but there’s a low-fi poetic beauty to be plundered from these denizens of the deep South whose legitimate, distinctly American identities give them a compelling sincerity. For Morris, this would be his final calling card before his ground-breaking next work, the startling crime story The Thin Blue Line (1988), in which he redefined the form of the modern documentary.