I can’t decide if documentarian Errol Morris’ greater talent lies in getting colorful people to open up to him so fully, or if it’s in finding those people in the first place.
There’s something truly special about the way that Morris captures his subjects. I’ve heard people say it is impossible for documentaries to be truly objective because there always is the filmmaker’s point of view at play, there’s always the agenda coloring the way the film is edited and presented. Morris’ films (thus far, at least) prove that assertion to be wholly wrong.
Morris’ debut, “Gates of Heaven,” was one of the least judgmental documentaries I’ve ever seen, especially given the eccentric nature of some of its featured persons. That carries over fully intact to his follow-up of “Vernon, Florida,” providing a look at a sleepy town’s colorful residents.
As in his previous film, we are given no names. No introduction. But unlike his previous documentary, we’re given no explicit explanation as to why Morris decided to single out this town or these half dozen or so residents. It is to our enrichment that he did, however.
If a town is a reflection of its residents, then Vernon, Fla., is one of the more eccentric places one could choose to live. During the course of the brief film (the runtime is only 55 minutes), we meet a man obsessed with hunting wild turkeys, a man whose philosophy extends to thinking about how different races of humans might inhabit their own planets, and the town’s sole police officer.
They talk about their lives. They talk about their obsessions. They talk about their jobs. Some of it is as mundane as talk gets and yet it is never boring because Morris always somehow finds subjects who are fascinating to simply watch and listen to. He makes no judgments, he simply allows his camera to capture the essence of who these people are as revealed through their own observations and confessions. He’s not making a documentary so much as he is crafting portraits.
And it is obvious the fascination and, I would venture to say, love that Morris has for these people. Many of them could very easily have been portrayed as simple or been presented in a harsh or negative or joking manner, and yet Morris has an almost visible affection for the personalities his lens captures.
I may not have learned anything about the history or the details of Vernon, but I have been given a look at its soul.
Next week, I’ll continue my series on Morris’ documentaries with a review of “The Thin Blue Line,” followed by “A Brief History of Time” and “The Fog of War.”
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.