Vernon, Florida. The Movie.
by Mike Miller
(Mount Dora, Florida)
Henry Shipes Turkey Hunter Vernon Florida
Vernon is a small town in the Florida panhandle not too far south of the Alabama border. Larger towns in that part of Florida are DeFuniak Springs and Marianna. Panama City Florida is about 25 miles south.
The documentary movie maker Errol Morris decided to make a film about the town back in the early 1980's that would be titled "Nub City". This name came about because he discovered that most amputation insurance frauds in the country came from Vernon.
Townsfolk would take out an accidental death and dismemberment insurance policy, then fake an accident and blow off their foot or their hand and collect the insurance money. They say a favorite technique was to remove your left foot because you'd still be able to drive your new Cadillac with your right foot.
Morris didn't make "Nub City" because the townsfolk reportedly threatened to kill him if he did. So he made another documentary instead, allowing several townspeople to talk about whatever they wanted.
The result is the 1982 movie "Vernon, Florida". My daughter recently gave me a DVD of this movie for Father's Day. It is the most mysterious and unforgettable film I've ever seen. I know I will have to watch it again and again.
The movie has no plot. It starts off with an old pickup truck with a mosquito fogger making its rounds in the early morning. Various people begin
to talk to the camera. No questions are asked by the unknown camera man. It is not like a documentary with interviews.
One of the people who talks is an avid turkey hunter. His passion for hunting the elusive bird is riveting. Another is an old man who keeps "pets" in a cage in his yard, including a possum and a gopher tortoise. Another old farmer is an expert at growing "wigglers", earthworms used as fish bait.
Yankees laughed at these poor country folk when the movie came out 30 years ago. Intellectuals were particularly entertained, and the people of Vernon began to resent the movie. It looked to them like Errol Morris was making fun of them.
It's definitely a culturally significant movie. I moved south more than 50 years ago and experienced some of the same culture shock watching this movie as I first did when I moved to Pensacola from the upper midwest back in 1960. I have known northern deer hunters and southern turkey hunters just as passionate about their sport as Vernon's Henry Shipes is about his.
Was Errol Morris making fun of these poor southerners? You will have to decide for yourself, but I for one am not sure that was his mission. Southern self sufficiency stands out all throughout this little gem of a movie.
These are people who have found something to be passionate about in life.