The movie, yes, but also the town.
Vernon, Florida (1981)
D. Errol Morris
1) Morris was initially attracted to the tiny Panhandle town of Vernon by its reputation as Nub City, a place famous for amputees who shot off (or otherwise removed) various limbs to collect on large insurance payments. Not sure if this is any way related to the vigilance required to prove the identity of dead bodies missing their hands in Winter’s Bone but it wouldn’t surprise me.
2) I tracked it down because I’m planning a post on Florida movies. This looked like a possible winner and was available for a couple of bucks on Amazon. The rest of this list is dedicated to the reasons it probably won’t make the cut.
3) In Errol Morris’s Vernon, Florida, there are no black people. Not even in background shots. That must mean Tony Peters, the kid with the wicked slider who kept striking me out in Pony League in the spring of ’75–and who, a couple of years later, led mostly black teams, filled with his brothers and cousins, from Vernon High to state championships in baseball and basketball–was a figment of my imagination. I mention it because, absent him, my very good batting average (.426) would have been considerably higher. Even higher than the .550 I was hitting before a stupid bet in the one-county-over Graceville High School weight-lifting room threw out my back and left me swinging with one hand for the last half of the season. (I won the bet. Small comfort.) I’m sure the fear that southern black people might seem as incomprehensibly “eccentric” as southern white people had nothing to do with any of this.
4) The film presents half a dozen implied stories, each of them worth it’s own narrative, and follows exactly none of them to a satisfying conclusion. I’d of gone with the adventures of the young pastor myself. In life, he must have had to contend with the old coots who know what the Bible really means in a thousand interesting and delicate ways. In the film, he never even meets them. And there’s some pretty good rants from those coots here, but nothing close to the End Times testimonial sermon I heard an old-timer in overalls preach from the second row pew of one-county-over White Pond Baptist in 1979 while all ten of us in attendance (including my father in the pulpit, my mother at the piano, me and seven members of the old man’s family) listened rapt. Dad was interim pastor there for a year. That was the only time the old man showed up. After the service, his daughter-in-law explained it to us, half-apologetic, half matter-of-fact: “Grandpa does that sometimes.” Nothing like that here.
5) Wausau, which is a suburb of Vernon, is mentioned once. Any filmmaker who spent enough time in southern Washington County to make a documentary and didn’t work in a story about the baseball field in Wausau–where it was theoretically possible to hit a home run over the eight-foot high left field fence without the ball ever travelling more than a foot off the ground–just ain’t worth his salt.
6) I’d forgive all that if Morris had caught the special feel of the North Florida woods where he keeps stalking a turkey hunter. My father walked away from his stalled car in December of 2007 in the heart of those very same south Washington County woods. Hunters found him three days later, passed out on the ground (a day after I had discovered him missing from his apartment and convinced the local police to put out an APB on him). He was transported to the Washington County Hospital and, two days later, to the nursing home next door. He died there eight months later, never having walked again. I’d give a lot to have the feel of the last place my father walked on this earth captured on film. The way Morris shot Vernon, Florida those woods could just as well be in Mississippi….or Pennsylvania.
Or the Tennessee Smokies where Dad grew up. And where he thought he was when he left his stalled care and tried to find his way home.
None of that here.