When Bad Movies Do Good Things

Vernon, Florida

At a screening of Gates of Heaven last year with its director, Errol Morris, there was a discussion of whether the filmmaker is condescending toward his subjects. I generalized:

“What’s plain in Morris’ movies is that he’s not looking down his nose at the people he interviews. He might be having a laugh at their expense, and he certainly doesn’t have sympathy for them, but he’s interested in them as human beings.”

That was before I saw his second movie, the hour-long documentary Vernon, Florida. And now that I have, I’ve changed my mind: Errol Morris is perfectly capable of contempt, of the ugly and public variety.

Like Gates of Heaven (Morris’ debut effort), Vernon, Florida is a loosely structured collection of interview segments with what appears to be an arbitrary organizing principle. In this case, the subjects are all residents of Vernon, Florida. One is obsessed with turkey hunting, and he speaks with a conspiratorial gravity better suited to a quest for the Holy Grail. Another shows the camera a turtle and says that it’s a gopher. One couple claims to have a jar of growing sand. A preacher delivers a heartfelt, convoluted sermon on the word “therefore” that would drive even the most ardent believer (and any lover of the English language) into the arms of Satan.

In a lecture, Morris explained the film this way:

“One of the themes that fascinated me was ... truth or, more specifically, the avoidance of truth and self-deception. My view is that the truth is knowable, but often that we have a vested interest in not knowing, not seeing it, disregarding it, avoiding it. Consequently, my interest in truth had two parts — an interest in the pursuit of truth and an interest in examining how people manage to avoid the truth in one way or another.”

He uses the growing-sand clip as an example:

“We know that sand doesn’t grow. And yet, the Martins ... are both absolutely convinced the sand is growing. How could that be? And I offered this up as an example of self-deception — willful belief despite considerable evidence to the contrary. Did they really believe the sand was growing? What was going on here?”

If that was truly his inquiry, Vernon, Florida is an utter failure. While there are a number of instances of objective truth being flouted in the movie, there’s no exploration of why. Morris never delves deep enough to show who these people are, and there’s little evidence in the film that the issue even interests him.

The movie has no apparent reason for existing, no message, no discernible structure, and only the faintest of pulses. While Gates of Heaven was full of passion and humanity that was meaningful to both the interviewees and the audience, Vernon, Florida just stares, unblinking, at the pathetic. There is no warmth, no depth, no attempt at empathy, no allowance that these people are anything but dumb, crazy, senile, or mentally deficient. It has the timbre of the faux earnest way that kids taunt people they hate — by targeting their faults, exploiting them, and watching them squirm, unable to escape. Quite simply, the movie is lazy, mean-spirited, hateful, and tedious.

Yeah, but so what? Vernon, Florida is clearly an anomaly on Morris’ résumé. After the quiet, patient, almost organic curiosity shows of Gates of Heaven (1978) and this (1981), the filmmaker took a break, unable to get financing for his projects. When he returned with The Thin Blue Line in 1988, he was an aggressive stylist, and much more focused as a filmmaker. Of his later documentary work, only Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997) retains the expansive, messy scope of Morris’ first two pictures, and nothing post-Vernon approaches the visual austerity of his early movies.

Yet the condescension that defines Vernon, Florida casts a shadow over everything else. Coarsely, I’ve thought of Morris as a goofball and eccentric, fascinated by people and wanting to figure them out. I’ve always wanted to see him as a decent, probing man, a humanist whose work grows from an insatiable and essential curiosity. Even in Mr. Death (1999), Morris sees and articulates something poignant in Fred Leuchter, a smart but misguided man who creates equipment to kill people and whose flawed research has become a holy text for Holocaust-deniers.

There have been hints of something else in Morris — the wrongful-conviction muckraking of The Thin Blue Line jumps out in retrospect as an uncharacteristic foray into social justice — yet he’s basically remained true to my description, whether his subject was Robert McNamara, Stephen Hawking, or the dedicated scientist dorks of Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.

Vernon, Florida undermines my perception significantly. Ironically, showing the base things Morris is capable of makes him more likable, in the sense that he’s no longer this constant, even-tempered, ever-noble intellectual but a capricious human being who sometimes like to sneer at the world and feel superior.

In a similar way, this dreadful, painfully hollow movie is actually quite valuable as context; it expands the possibilities of Errol Morris and informs his other works, making them better. While his inquisitiveness and good humor seemed natural and given before, with Vernon, Florida they’re revealed as qualities that only emerge when he’s genuinely engaged and making the effort to truly understand his subjects. The film is distasteful in its barely concealed mockery, but it’s welcome proof that Errol Morris is a man, not a deity.

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