“Vernon, Florida” written by Mark Borchardt


Summer has come upon us. For many, it is a seasonal time to rejoice. For others, it is a year-round attribute in the location that they live; in other words, the warmth is nothing new under the sun. States such as California and Florida immediately come to mind and the latter one is where we find ourselves.

Vernon, Florida” is a film by Errol Morris from 1981. He of course went on to find greater fame with “The Thin Blue Line” and found Roger Ebert’s ecstatic favor with “Gates of Heaven.”

Ned Burgess, who served as the director of photography, provides clean, accessible images of this small town and its quaint, interesting inhabitants. These are the people we usually see from a distance as we’re just “passing through.” We never get to know their names, their circumstances, nor their stories. But this time we stop by and get to check in.

The first shot is of a small, battered road either leading into town or out of it, depending on which way you look at it. A pick-up truck creates slow trails of immense, billowing smoke behind it. Seems like some sort of fumigating going on. And that temporally extended shot sets the tone of a slow, easy feel to this film – just like its residents. The blinking yellow traffic lights of this one-horse town signify the lack of the finite dictates of a hardcore green and red. It’s just ease on through with leisurely caution.

If people are not born in a locale, then there is another reason that they live there. Usually, there may be the comfort of friends or relatives to settle by or the lure of employment; romantic as it seems, rarely does one close their eyes and blindly let a haphazardly planted finger determine their new homestead.

We first get to meet a retiree with his inexpensive house paid off. He’s come to reside in this laid-back town from the urban grip of Chicago. From his perspective, he got out while the getting was good. He’s an unassuming guy and later on, he shows us a photograph of a star and explains his good fortune of getting the shot: “When something turns out, you say, ‘Gee, I’m lucky.’” Good things can be simple things and he inherently realizes this.

An older gent asks us, “Ever see a man’s brains?” He goes on to explain the complexities of our own mental operating system as he exhibits a cacophony of hand and foot movements to illustrate the ability to do more than one thing at once. It’s a sublime sort of chicken-dance we get. Yes, it is those small moments in life.

But it can be argued that the real star of this film is a sleepy-eyed turkey hunter. We first meet him from the backseat of his truck with his hunting partner “Snake” as they traverse a dusky road in the middle of the boonies. There is an ethereal quality to morning twilight, an unbroken quietude as most of mankind is still fast asleep – save for these persistent guys. Our man is more than willing to discuss the science of turkey hunting to the nth degree. And we’re on board for every word, for there is a sort of hypnotizing quality to his obsession, and his soft droll. Snake, is mostly silent, but ever watchful, always listening for turkeys himself. They are backlit by the amber glow of the early morning sun against the lush green of the Florida foliage. Our hunter can determine the weight of turkeys by the depth of their footprints. Humorously, he lets it be known of an inconvenient ailment: “You hear a turkey gobbling and you forget about diarrhea and everything.” We also get to spend time with him on his porch, while behind him on the outside of his house hangs plaques with turkey beards and feet. His obsession is complete.

There are other denizens of this town that the film touches base with and among them we get a trio of elder gents comfortably sunk into a bench outside a gas station. An iconic, Rockwellian image if there ever was one. You may observe those seniors now at a comfortable remove but someday you’ll be joining them on that bench.

Essentially, these townsfolk are a God-fearing people and we even get to spend some time in a church service. We also find ourselves floating on ethereal waters with an old-timer in a boat explaining that God made everything as opposed to: “It just happened.” And along those Godly lines, another explains how divinity granted him a plot of land to build on and a $5,000 van just when he needed one. I have an admiration for those who are content with their assured connections to life. I’m sure it gives one a sense of place and peace.

I found one of the most endearing portraits occurring outside a repair shop as three men change a large tire. The mise-en-scene is of a basic, workingman’s realm; the beauty of the everyday captured on film, something in real life that’s usually passed over with nothing more than a half curious glimpse.

And so, the simple grace of “Vernon, Florida” reflects the simple grace of the lives it portrays. And these once invisible lives have been made manifest for all to see by the magic of celluloid. And it is a film, shot in simpler times – that is for documentaries. There isn’t any frenetic editing or hagiographic espousing. It is a quiet, dignified portrait both in its temporal quality and compositional study, serving as a relief, an antidote from the distracting bombast of contemporary offerings.

“Vernon, Florida” closes as magically as it has begun, this time drifting along a lake as our turkey hunter does a count of birds majestically perched atop high trees. He counts about three dozen in all, but lets us know that they are just buzzards. Ultimately, it’s all in the details. These may not be big stories but they are idiosyncratic ones to each of these lives. And without this documentary we wouldn’t have gotten to know some of them. Yet of course we’ll never remotely comprehend the infinite constellations of countless existences out there. We are thankful for what we get here.

In “Vernon, Florida” it is in the specific that we find the universal. So, as we gaze upon our maps this summer, at the thousands of towns throughout this country that we’ve never heard of, it truly becomes a waking dream of wonder as we ponder just who resides on those dusty back roads, those quaint main streets, those clapboard houses? What are their lives like, what are their secrets, their histories, hopes, desires, failings and achievements? All in all, what are their stories? Everyone’s got one.