Vernon, Florida (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
“Vernon, Florida” showcased a group of people with different eccentricities. Among them were a couple who claimed that their jar of sand was growing because of radiation, a man with a pet turtle (who didn’t think it was a turtle but a gopher), a cop with nothing much to do, a sermon involving the several meanings of the word “therefore,” and most interesting of them all, a man with a passion for hunting turkeys. Directed by Errol Morris, half the fun of the picture was in allowing the subjects to speak to us as if we were right there in front of them. Their accents were sometimes difficult to decipher but it didn’t matter because the nature of the one-way conversation was so fascinating. I knew I was interested in what they had to say when they mumbled or stumbled over their words and I leaned closer to the screen to grasp at the evanescent words. Unfortunately, more time were given to some people than others. I wanted to know more about the gentleman who grew worms. I don’t particularly like worms but I was interested in his occupation and his point of view about why raising worms was important. He was only given two or three scenes. However, I was happy that the picture always returned to the obsessive turkey hunter. The description he gave about where and how he would hunt was so vivid, it almost left like we were following him in the hunt. I was surprised that each pair of turkey feet he had on his walls, initially very creepy, had a special story. I didn’t know whether to laugh or worry when he began to have a fierce look in his eyes as he described every delicious detail about the joy of shooting a turkey. As the film went on, the more I realized its wicked sense of humor. Most of the people being interviewed were the elderly and it was difficult to tell whether they still knew what was going on. Did they really believe in what they said, especially the couple who thought that the sand they obtained from New Mexico was indeed growing? Nevertheless, Morris didn’t make fun of the individuals being interviewed. There was one scene I was particularly impressed with which involved a man mentioning another who didn’t believe in a higher power. Just when I thought he was about to make a remark against those who didn’t believe, he highlighted a commonality between a believer and a non-believer. Even though he was a devout Christian, he knew it wasn’t his place to judge. I wish we had a chance to spend more time with him. “Vernon, Florida” was a piece of evidence that there are interesting things embedded in the mundane. Its slice-of-life style was endearing, amusing, and it was loyal in celebrating of our differences.
Fast, Cheap & Out of Control (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Four men with unconventional careers, Dave Hoover, a wild animal trainer, Raymond A. Mendez, a mole rat specialist, Rodney Brooks, a robot scientist, and George Mendonça, a topiary gardener, were the subjects of Errol Morris’ bizarre but magnetic documentary. It was a particularly challenging film to pull off because how the men defined their lives couldn’t be more different from one another. The director’s task was to find a way to highlight their similarities without being heavy-handed or reaching for something that wasn’t quite there. By constructing a collage of clips from classic serials released in theaters, playing in black and white and color gradients, using various types cameras, it successfully established an argument that even the most mundane could be transformed into something interesting given the right perspective. I was particularly interested in the fact that mole rats were mammals but they lived like termites. Most of us are familiar with the archetype of a mammal so the picture was a nice and humbling reminder of two things: How we take certain rules for granted in order to make some sense of the world and the mysteries of life ultimately help to drive our curious minds forward. Not fully knowing keeps us guessing so we have room to grow. Another layer added on top and around the mole rat scenario were the robots designed to act like insects. Unlike biology, how robots work is something I’m just not interested in despite my dependence on technology. When the robots were introduced, I expected to lose interest. But I didn’t. It surprised me because the film took a specific stance and stuck with it. That is, robots may be non-living but they are inspired by the living. Ironically, we could learn more about the living by observing and learning how the non-living worked. I never thought about it that way. The weaker half was the animal trainer’s fond memories of Clyde Beatty, a lion tamer who eventually went on to star in motion pictures, and gardener’s passion for cutting plants into images of animals. The former discussed the dangers of controlling creatures, like tigers, lions, and bears, that normally shouldn’t be controlled but I failed to grasp the implications it wanted to convey. There were too many old footages from the circus which didn’t help elevate the messages it wanted to bring to us. On the other hand, the latter felt more like a recollection of a man in his twilight years. I’m sure that filmmakers didn’t mean to but every time the fanciful plants appeared, I was reminded of the man’s obsession instead of his passion. There’s a subtle difference and I wish the filmmakers had a more solid grasp in terms of connecting Hoover and Mendonça’s careers to Mendez and Brooks’. Nevertheless, “Fast, Cheap & Out of Control” had many wild ideas worth hearing and jaw-dropping images worth watching. If anything, it made me wish I had a pet mole rat.