One could read Morris as condescending in this case, and with good reason—most Hollywood features have a patronizing attitude when it comes to the South—but I detect genuine admiration. Shipes is absolutely content with his life, as underlined in the film’s final scene, which features Shipes out on the water in a small motor boat, counting dozens of buzzards in a tree and listening to the flapping sounds of their wings. “It gives me that turkey feeling,” Shipes says of the flapping. “Mmmmm-mmmmmm! I wish there were as many turkeys as there are buzzards.” That’s it. That’s the man’s one wish. Watching the scene I couldn’t help but think of the numerous international polls that suggest that those with the least material wealth often live the happiest lives. In that respect, at least, the subjects of Vernon, Florida are almost idealized.
EH: The way that Morris presents his subjects in this film is certainly complicated. There’s a good dose of the same kind of subtle mockery that ran through Gates, but also more of the humanist perspective. To me, it’s a film about the essential narrowness of our individual existences, the way we each tend to lock into a very circumscribed area and then revisit the same experiences over and over again throughout our lives. Henry the turkey hunter is happy, yes, but it’s hard to miss the basic similarity of his turkey hunting stories, which all end with him pointing to one of a handful of identical “eleven inch beards” hung on his wall. Unspoken underneath all this is the question of why we do what we do, why the things that interest us interest us so much. These people talk and talk—about turkeys, about law enforcement, about trapping possums and turtles, about the sand at a vacation spot—but they’re seldom able to really communicate why they find these things so interesting, why they’re so eager to share their experiences. They probably wouldn’t be able to articulate it, not in a way that could come across to a non-believer.
What’s complicated about Morris’ presentation of these quirky people is that he is sympathetic to them while simultaneously having a little fun at their expense, mocking their tendency to repeat themselves, to retell the same stories. It’s hard not to laugh when Shipes begins telling one of his hunting stories for the nth time (“So then he did a double gobble…”) and yet at the same time it’s also hard not to recognize qualities in these people that exist in everyone—their obsessions are peculiar but their engagement with their lives and the things that interest them are no different from anyone else, anyone with more “normal” obsessions like movies or music or whatever else. It’s a good question: why do we laugh, if only a little, at Henry Shipes and not at someone who obsessively watches and talks about movies all the time? What’s refreshing to me about this film is that Morris could’ve easily just been patronizing and condescending (not that he isn’t, at times) but instead he digs for something deeper, something universal.
Then again, there’s a scene like the one you mention with the preacher, which is hilarious, but unquestionably only there so Morris can make fun of this yokel who thinks he’s being profound by verbally footnoting Webster’s Dictionary. I mean, this guy just rambles on and on about the meaning of an utterly innocuous word, talking about how he went to look up the word “conjunction” and so on. Finally he makes some lame attempt to wring a spiritual message from all his wordplay. Morris is obviously mocking him, taking a superior perspective, letting the condescension that occasionally shows up in his other interviews really take over. Don’t get me wrong, I laughed, but I didn’t feel good about it. Morris’ position with respect to the other interviewees was much less mocking, more like he was simply getting a kick out of their eccentricity and enjoying their personalities. Here, it very much felt like the educated elite enjoying the bumbling pretensions of a backwoods preacher. At times like this, I feel like Morris is very conscious of his audience, very knowing about their prejudices and the way they’re likely to react to something like this. But rather than challenge the prejudices of his audience, he caters to them.
JB: It’s interesting that you phrase it that way, because I wasn’t sure what my reaction is supposed to be with Vernon, Florida. Watching Gates of Heaven, laughter is unavoidable. I’ve only seen the movie twice from start to finish, but I’ve watched that guy interrupt his wife to say “neutered” at least a dozen times. I can’t get enough of it. Condescending or not, Gates is frequently hilarious. That said, I didn’t find a lot to laugh at in Vernon, and it wasn’t because I was turned off, as if sensing that Morris was taking unfair advantage of his subjects. The scene with the preacher, for example, merely caused me to furrow my brow, trying to figure out what on earth he was talking about. I think you’re correct that Morris assumes the audience for his film will be more enlightened than the bunch featured on screen, but Vernon, Florida doesn’t set up these people for ridicule the way Sacha Baron Cohen makes laugh targets out of Southerners in Borat. I think it’s entirely possible that the subjects of Vernon, Florida could see the finished film and take pride in what’s there—up until they hear an audience’s laughter, that is. So I’m wondering: If we were to suggest that Vernon, Florida is exploitative or condescending, might that say more about us than the movie? After all, as you suggested, we all have our quirks and obsessions. Might this be as faithful a reflection of truth as, say, the reverential Man on Wire? Should these people be out of bounds because of their peculiarity? Doesn’t that only further the pretentiousness that makes us laugh in the first place?
EH: It’s definitely a tricky subject, as I tried to hint at above. I mean, what really makes these people targets of ridicule in these two movies? Is it anything Morris does, or is it just that we’re bringing our own stereotypical beliefs and prejudices to the film? Is Morris banking on our prejudices to make his movies work? I really can’t say for sure. I just know that, although I see the humor that Morris is going for in these films—and I’d be lying if I denied laughing—I’m uncomfortable with the suspicion that Morris is exploiting our tendency to laugh at people we see as less sophisticated than us, whether rightly or wrongly.
This all reminds me of a discussion about Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary The True Meaning of Pictures, a film that deals with a lot of the same issues that are present in Morris’ work. That film is about the work of the photographer Shelby Lee Adams, who photographs the poorest, most outrageous people he can find in rural Appalachia and then displays the photos in high-profile art galleries. Needless to say, the debate about whether he’s “documenting” or “exploiting” his subjects is more or less endless, even though the rural folks themselves, with very few exceptions, love the photos. My own feeling is that a photo (or a film) is dependent on its context for a large part of its meaning. In my own review of Baichwal’s film, I posed the question of “what matters more: what the artist thinks he’s doing, or what the audience viewing the art think it’s doing. And if it’s the latter, which audience?” I think this conundrum applies equally well to Morris. Should we blame him just because people in certain audiences find humor in his portrayals of these people? Or do we have to get into the inevitably knotty question of whether or not he intended to make fun of his subjects?
JB: This is a conundrum that applies to various forms of reportage, actually. In print, for example, there tends to be disagreement among writers about how to quote someone who butchers the English language. The hard journalistic rule is unmistakable: what the source says is what the source says; so that’s the quote, verbatim. But there are those who feel that there’s nothing wrong with cleaning up something like, “He don’t like you,” so that it’s “He doesn’t like you.” The argument goes that if you don’t make that change, the quote becomes about the subject’s poor grammar rather than what the subject is discussing. Then again, if the subject of the story is the person with poor grammar, then that’s part of the story, just like the Vernon character’s insistence that his pet turtle is a gopher is part of his story.
All of which leads me here: In my mind, Morris’ only journalistic responsibility, presuming he has one (Herzog might disagree), is to capture his subjects accurately according to his encounters with them, because intent is an even trickier thing than either of us has suggested thus far. When Morris began Vernon, Florida, for example, his intent was to expose Nub City. By the time filming ended, his intent was something else, and it might have included wanting to exalt the subjects of his film, or he might have meant to humiliate them, or something else in between—we could argue about that for days. But before any of that, his intent, almost certainly, was to have his film be a success.