Being a documentary filmmaker can be the most exhilarating, fascinating career in the movies – but it also comes with tremendous responsibility. Unlike narrative filmmakers, documentarians have a responsibility to reflect real life – reality needs to be told through the lens of their camera, and the world they portray needs to be truthful. Whether they take the form of big-budget theatrical documentaries, or simply true-crime documentaries on television, a documentary is supposed to tell the truth and be a reflection on the world as it is.
Documentaries also tend to take on grandiose subject matter, important people and events that defined our world and are almost historic in context. However, what happens when someone decides to just make a documentary about normal people? Further than that, what happens when someone makes their career almost exclusively out of showing the lives of normal people, or unconventional representations of the lives of extraordinary people? Just ask Errol Morris, who in the span of his multi-decade cinematic career, has made some of the most bizarre and wonderfully irreverent documentary films. Some of them may be a lot more important in terms of subject matter, but many of his better documentaries are meditations on the everyday life. Perhaps my favorite of his earlier films is Vernon, Florida, one of the most delightfully odd but wonderfully entertaining documentary films ever made.
Vernon, Florida is about the titular small town. It isn’t a particularly special town, and there is nothing noteworthy about it. It just appears to be like any small community in America, operating on family values and trying to just exist in peace and harmony. However, Errol Morris has always had a preoccupation with showing reality, and he manages to find the most interesting and extraordinary people hiding in the most obscure places. Vernon, Florida is about nothing other than a small handful of the residents of the town, with the entire film being shifting discussions with a few of the residents as they talk about…anything, really.
Vernon, Florida is a film for anyone who wants to see people talk about completely random ideas and tell the most pointless stories. There is a man that talks about selling possums. There is a married couple that believes entire towns can be engulfed by desert sand. There is a preacher who spends several minutes discussing the word “therefore” and how it relates to the modern Christian (spoiler alert: it doesn’t, as hard as he may try). Perhaps the narrative from the turkey hunter is among the most captivating pieces of cinema ever. None of these subjects are given names – the film jumps from testimony to testimony, showing that these are just regular people on the surface, but actually also wonderfully eccentric individuals who make for riveting cinema. Morris’ decision to make a film about “normal” people is really something quite extraordinary,
Despite the simplistic concept and basic execution, Vernon, Florida is one of the most experimental and innovative documentaries for the pure reason that it is a film about nothing. There is absolutely no point to this film. There is no narrative thread connecting these people together, other than the fact that they live in the same town. When we consider nearly every documentary film has some important message, the fact that this film really just has absolutely no point towards it is absolutely incredible, because it is defiant of the concept of filmmaking. Morris has never been one to follow the rules, and rather constructs films about what fascinates him – and while the idea of watching a half dozen pensioners ramble on about absolute nonsense may seem awful for many, I found it to be thoroughly entertaining and fascinating beyond compare.
Vernon, Florida, like much of Morris’ work, is a non-interfering documentary. Morris simply allows his subjects to talk for themselves. There is no intervention from the filmmakers, and all commentary or context is completely left out. This liberates the film from any kind of cinematic manipulation – it is plain, honest and frank, a pure depiction of life in this small town. Documentaries can often be manipulative and over-emotional or force the audience to feel something. Vernon, Florida is the exact opposite – it allows the subjects themselves complete control over this film, and they direct the narrative themselves through their stories and testimonies. If that doesn’t represent liberating cinema, then I am not entirely sure what does.
There really isn’t much else to say about Vernon, Florida. It is quite a short documentary, but it has a lot to say. It may not be the most exciting on the surface, but it certainly has a huge heart under the surface. These people are strangely endearing – ordinary, but wonderfully eccentric and they prove to be more entertaining that many professional actors. Vernon, Florida may not be for everyone – but for anyone who wants something truly different, then Vernon, Florida is the film for you. Errol Morris is a sheer genius, and Vernon, Florida is just another example of that fact.