Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Vernon, Florida

Grade : A+ Year : 1981 Director : Errol Morris Running Time : 55min Genre :
Movie review score

I can’t say that Errol Morris is one of my favorite filmmakers per se, but I absolutely love what he does as a filmmaker. The reason both of those statements are true is because I don’t find myself watching his work as often as I probably should, but when I do watch it, I am enamored by the way he does what he does. Ever since I watched “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” in 1997, every film of his I’ve seen since has been a profound engagement with the complicated nature of humanity, and it is a genuine pleasure each time out.

This prologue brings us to “Vernon, Florida,” which was his second film after his legendary debut, “Gates of Heaven,” and is simply a look at some of the members of the community that is Vernon, Florida. In his review, Roger Ebert said that Morris originally set out there to do interviews for a documentary about a retirement community, but instead, found the people he interviewed compelling enough for their own film. At 55 minutes, it is a short film for a narrative, but Morris has always been gifted for never overstaying his welcome with his films, and 55 minutes is more than enough time for him to give us a clear picture of life in this town.

Watching the film, I thought about the time I’ve spent visiting my hometown of Ravenna, Ohio, and the surrounding area, especially where my uncle lives in Brimfield, over the past couple of years. Ravenna is a larger town than Vernon, Florida, which appears to only be a single road with a traffic light, but the roads and some of the buildings, worn down and in need of repair, seen in Morris’s films felt familiar to me. I felt like I could walk into Vernon, and see sights that I’ve seen in Ohio, and meet people like some of the people I’ve known from my time in Ohio. There’s a big difference in the communities I remember being a part of in Ohio with the ones I’ve known in Georgia, and I’m not going to lie, I kind of miss those seemingly simpler times in Ohio, those simpler people and relationships I shared. Of course, I was a kid when we moved to Georgia in 1988, and I wouldn’t trade the people and opportunities I’ve had in Georgia for anything- if we never moved to Georgia, there’s a chance you might not even be reading this review from me- but when I’ve gone back to Ohio as an adult, I’ve felt comfortable in a way that I sometimes don’t in Georgia. I get why the people in Morris’s film live this life, and there’s a part of me that is envious.

What I wouldn’t give to be sitting next to Morris as he’s interviewing the subjects of his films, especially in here and in “Gates of Heaven,” because I’d be fascinating to learn the questions and discussions that lead to some of the answers and stories we get from the people on camera here. We get profound ruminations on the act of turkey hunting; a man of faith telling the story of how he wanted a van, and how it goes in a direction that feels authentic but also affirming in his faith; and we get looks into the lives and mindsets of some of the older people in the town, including one who recounts the story of how he moved from Chicago to Vernon and how much it cost. Probably my favorite moment in the film is when Morris films a church service, and the minister turns his sermon into a grammatical lesson for about 2-3 minutes; it’s the type of moment you experience that feels absurdly funny, but also honest because you understand, as you watch it, how you got to it. This is a wonderful slice-of-life look at this town, and few filmmakers had that sense of purpose quite as focused so early in their career as Morris did.

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