Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 09 June 2014
Source Columbia Pictures VHS
You mean, this is the real world?
—Albert Bitterling, resident of Vernon, Florida
Vernon is nested midway across the Florida panhandle, a short drive north of Panama City and the state’s alabaster beaches. Its population is less than a thousand people, and for better or worse it could be mistaken for any small town in the southern U.S.: a modest sprawl of weathered houses and municipal buildings stemming from an aortic Main Street, which has seen Vernon’s most integral civic improvement when it was widened by two lanes to permit a more accessible evacuation route for hurricanes. It is an improbable setting for a movie.
Vernon, Florida was Errol Morris’ second film, and perceptibly a direct continuation of his first, Gates of Heaven. Both are surveys of an antiquated Americana, predominantly composed of portraits of middle-class, blue collar denizens of some unexotic locale. And both are as formally rigorous as they are meandering: whereas Gates of Heaven, which centers on a pet cemetery in Napa, California, entertains topics as widespread as entrepreneurship, the innate need for companionship, guitar solos, and the afterlife, Vernon, Florida is a film about… well, I don’t know, exactly, and this has troubled me ever since I first saw it. It remains the most beguiling film I have ever seen.
Vernon, Florida may be described as a series of interviews with the yokels that populate it. Only a few of them appear to be younger than sixty and employed, and there’s little immediate correlation between them other than the eagerness with which they soliloquize on whatever comes to mind. One of them shows the menagerie of animals he has trapped in his back yard, which includes a turtle he insists is a gopher. A couple reminisce upon a trip they took to New Mexico years prior, and submit the jar of sand they brought back with them—its contents, they are convinced, have since more than doubled in volume, perhaps because they are radioactive. There’s also a preacher who delivers a sermon on the frequency of the word “therefore” in the Bible, a turkey hunter whose enthusiasm for hunting turkeys eclipses that of seemingly any other activity, and a policeman who spends most of his time in a parked car, party to Vernon’s apparently total lack of crime.
The film is engrossing if only for these characters and the way they speak and the things they talk about. It is so rich in colloquialism, so beholden a particular vernacular that it amounts to a work of such evident authenticity that it remains distinctive over thirty years after it was made. But considering that any small town in the south may house a comparable share of grizzled philosophers, the question remains: what is it that drew Morris here in the first place?
Vernon, Florida was completed in 1981 and received limited distribution the following year, and screened only on PBS prior to its release on home video in 1988. And yet the film’s distinctiveness, however stifled by the film’s frivolity within Morris’ otherwise scrupulous body of work, is immediate to those who see it. For me, and I imagine many others, it’s a portrait of America’s fringes, unencumbered by the commerce that nourishes larger cities—it is a place that seems to have remained endearingly beholden to archaic mores. This is a romantic pretense, however, and those who admire the film will almost certainly find the real-life Vernon to be far more mundane and less folksy, but its history uncharacteristically perverse and violent.
In the first half of the 20th century, Vernon, situated on a snaking body of water called Pippin Mill Creek, saw its steamships come to a halt and its sawmill close. It was once the seat of Washington county, but this was transferred to nearby Chipley in 1927. Ever since, its population has remained more or less in stasis, and its demographics bent towards those over the age of forty.1
According to author and investigator John J. Healy, “there [was] little or no work there, so most of the people who [did] work at all [had] to drive thirty or forty miles to other, bigger towns nearby.” Healy’s account of Vernon is from his 1975 book, A Game of Wits,2 and it is significant for two reasons: one, its publishing is concurrent with Morris’ foray into Vernon (he first travelled there in 1976 or 1977); and two, it is the first published account of Vernon’s incredible narrative concerning insurance fraud. Healy never mentions Vernon by name in his book, however; to he and other insurance investigators it was notoriously known as “Nub City.”
“The first dismemberment occurred when one man shot his hand off and collected $1,500 on a small industrial-type policy.” This was some time in the fifties, according to Healy, who says that this particular type of policy was popular in the poorer parts of the U.S.—most especially so in Vernon:
Once the $1,500 claim payment appeared, word spread like wildfire throughout the community, and a second shooting occurred very soon afterward. This time the limb was worth $3,500.
Hereafter, claims would fetch in excess of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, each typically for a severed left hand or right foot; a maximal subtraction that nevertheless permitted one to sign his name and drive a car. When Healy was sent to Vernon he found the scheme’s perpetrators abundant: “To sit in your car on a sweltering summer evening on the main street of Nub City, watching anywhere from eight to a dozen cripples walking along the street, gives the place a truly ghoulish, eerie atmosphere.”
A great many of the dismemberments were done with shotguns:
The hand or foot is literally blown away: flesh, bone, and all. What is left is a mangled stump of bleeding meat, which a doctor has to work on skillfully so that a prosthetic appliance can be fitted later on.
Remarkably, the bulk if not all of these accidents were performed by men who not only had ample experience with firearms, but the wherewithal to commit them in the conspicuous vicinity of a hospital, often with a readied tourniquet.
Healy’s efforts drew attention to the scheme, and by the 1970s instances of dismemberment would cease. Not a single individual was convicted of fraud. Regardless, Vernon’s sideshow of disfigured bodies remained as a testament to both its desperate ingenuity as well as its capacity for harm, even if this had yet to be directed externally.
All the people in Morris’ film have hands and feet, and there’s no mention of Vernon’s punitive moniker. But the story of Nub City would captivate him. He had read of Healy’s account in a 1972 article in The New York Times, which withheld Vernon’s name and location;7 nevertheless, Morris confirmed Vernon was Nub City and was soon en route. In his first stay there he received at least one death threat:
At the Cat’s Eye Tavern one night, a citizen twice Morris’ size smiled as he extinguished a cigarette on the lapel of Morris’ blazer. Morris remembers thinking that perhaps he had packed the wrong clothes.3
“I remember it hurt my feelings,” he recounts, “because it seemed that, you know, maybe the people in Vernon didn’t like me.” He returned in 1979 and found the Florida town expectedly unwelcoming, if marginally more tolerant. No one would speak to him about Nub City, and Morris postulated that the idea of a nonfiction film on the matter “would turn into one of those bad investigative documentaries where people are slamming doors in your face.”
He returned again in 1980 with a film crew in tow, and soon the death threats resumed—the so-called king of the nubbies, one of many holdovers from Vernon’s period of insurance fraud twenty years prior, told him and his crew to leave within twenty-four hours. Morris did not comply, a position answered when one of the nubbies attempted to run over his cinematographer with a truck.
Morris was profiled in a 1989 issue of The New Yorker, in which author Mark Singer describes the resultant focus of Vernon, Florida as determined “more or less in desperation:”
Morris began to film interviews with various interesting citizens of Vernon, among them Roscoe Collins, the cop; Joe Payne, the collector of wild animals (opossum, tortoise, rattlesnake); Albert Bitterling, the cosmologist with the opera glasses (“Reality—you mean, this is the real world? Ha, ha, ha. I never thought of that!”); George Harris and Claude Register, two geezers who discuss how an acquaintance put a shotgun to his forehead and pulled the trigger with his big toe (“And he said, that day, he says, ‘That’ll be the last thing I ever do is to shoot myself.’ Which it was.”), Vernon, Florida contains not a single reference to Nub City.
The subtext is that Morris was chased out of Vernon by the people he had intended to interview. He has more or less confirmed this in multiple interviews; I asked him about it myself in a Reddit AMA:4
Did you get in a physical fight with the townsfolk of Vernon, Florida when you were making the film about them?
It depends on what you mean by a physical fight. I’m a physical coward. I don’t hit people, because I’m convinced I’d get the worst of it. However, I’ve had many death threats. Particularly in Vernon, FL. And I was beaten up by the son-in-law of a double amputee. (It hurt.)
But if Vernon truly houses such antagonism, then Morris’ depiction of it is sympathetic, according each of his subjects the choice and time to discuss whatever he would like. It’s as though, absent a primary directive, he permitted those in Vernon to tell their own story, even if the one he was after was richer in a macabre sense. Desperate as they may be, his tactics resulted in a film that Vernon’s own residents receive uncontroversially—I discovered this when, in obtaining a VHS copy of the film on eBay, I came into contact with one such resident. I asked him what he and others in town thought of the film:5
It’s not about us, it’s about people in general. I think Morris could’ve done this movie anywhere. Some of the people in the movie thought it was great (Henry Shipes [the turkey hunter] for example) and Ray Cotton [the preacher] thought it was an opportunity to save more souls, I think. That or he was thinking it was his first step to fame and fortune like some other shyster TV preachers. […] Some of my cousins who still live in the area thought it was wrong of him to hold up those people who were mentally handicapped or at best of very low near-normal intelligence as if they were ordinary people in the community. Still others hoped that it would “put Vernon on the map” in a way that would attract tourism, possibly even industry. As it has turned out, that hasn’t happened (yet).
For better or worse Morris’ film remains the most substantial document of Vernon, its quiet environs, and its loquacious occupants. There’s as little to distinguish it now as there was when Morris travelled there. Vernon has a website and unpretentious forays into social media like any small town with some dispute as to its potential as a destination to settle down. It has a high school, and turkey hunting seems to still be popular there. The Nub City episode has receded into Vernon’s past and remains little more than lore shaped by secondhand accounts.
But there is one indispensable firsthand account: a videotape of a Vernon city hall meeting on June 20th, 1984.6 On its agenda was the matter of the city’s only police officer, and whether or not he should be fired. Given its proximity to Morris’ film, it is probable that the policeman in question is the same one in the film, Joe Payne.
The meeting is adjourned and the council president, seemingly in protest, backhands another woman in an action that inspires a surfeit of violence. In an instant bodies thrash upon each other in all directions, both men and women, until a single figure is pulled away, his face luminescent in a veneer of blood. The maelstrom around him proceeds, anchored by an older, rounder individual who undercuts with his right hand as his eyes pan determinedly across the room. In lieu of his left hand is a prosthetic hook.