Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out.
“Those snakes can crawl over that water, just like they’re crawling over the ground. Some people says, ‘You swimmin’?’…Nuh-uh.”
And thus we have Vernon, Florida‘s pivot-point, its transition from a discourse on the intelligence of Man – his Reason & Will – to the Divine Plan of God. From this point on, it’s all Hope & Eternal Love, The Empyrean captured with a cheap camera through a pair of opera glasses. Rivers deepen, judgments are passed, prayer & condemnation are tossed together haphazardly, & that might be a lot of water out there, but yeah, that’s just the top of it. Because Erroll Morris is just playing with us at this point, tempting the viewer into quiet chuckles and little back-&-forth shakes of the head, waiting for the most vulnerable moment – that of our complete subjection to his cinematic desire – before the quick cut to God:
“God made all things, all things that was made. And he looked on it, & pronounced it Good, & Very good. But you can go to the extreme on anything. You can go to the extreme on anything, make a hog of yourself. But as long as you let it go like God intended it…he’ll give you power & strength & wit to take care of the deal.”
Suddenly everything stops & rewinds. Did he just say God? Well, what happened to the turkey hunter, or the man who keeps animals in a wire cage to trade & sell? Weren’t we just listening to a police officer in a quiet Florida town say that not much besides the occasional petty theft happens down here?
But God is ever-pervasive in Vernon, Florida, His form changing to fit the environment or the mood or the backlighting, but always there just the same. He begins right from the opening credits sequence: a black screen, names & titles coming & going, and a faint, nearly unperceivable noise. Crickets. The sound will become a theme, the Holy Soundtrack to an otherwise music-less landscape. Theirs is the sound of the Hope for a Beyond, their chirp-chirp a testament to the Divine nature of this life & the other. The men opening their stories, beliefs, & fears to the camera, these men live with the crickets pressing down on them at every moment, aware of the presence but comfortable in accepting it without questioning the source or purpose. The crickets are never pointedly exhibited by Morris in his film, & yet we as willing viewers understand their role: logistically, they create atmosphere & nostalgia, a seemingly innocent backdrop for a seemingly innocent movie.
But the crickets have a counter-balance, & it leads back to the original quote: “Those snakes can crawl over that water just like they’re crawling over the ground.” The Snake – that pesky creature of original sin, temptation, & torment – its presence is at times overbearing, temptation playing just as major a role in the lives of Men as God. Morris even places a character in Vernon with the name Snake, a silent hunter whose only words are heard as faint murmurs off-screen. His partner at points even remarks on the way Snake operates: “If he finds a fresh track, he’ll stop listening and go in on it.” Are none of us safe from Snake the hunter, Snake the temptation, Satan the Snake? And yet, avoidance of sin is said to be not only possible, but necessary; all it takes is to ask yourself a question: “You swimmin’?”
No statement on the existence of God’s love, however, is more complete than that of the lone paddler in the marshes of Vernon, Florida. The cut to his guarded, lit eyes is quick & entirely uncompromising. With a hat resting weakly on a withered scalp, one hand resting on a steering oar behind him & the other resting across his knee, he is nothing less than a Dantean chronicler:
“I never saw anything more perfect in my life than to see the perfection of God himself.”
And suddenly we are thrust back into the meaning of God’s Divinity, the purpose of our own lives put on hold while we strive to first discover the source of God’s perfection. The verb here becomes the most important word in the world the minute you realize the implications behind “to see” when paralleled with the image of this man, sitting silent behind illuminated eyeglasses. The reflection of intense light that blocks any semblance of his eyes from the viewer immediately calls to mind the final four cantos of Dante’s Paradiso, in which Dante ascends to the final Sphere of Heaven & finds the love of God revealed to him. For Dante as a character in his own poem, God is revealed only through a series of bright lights that reflect the Heavenly Gaze like mirrors, until Dante himself is the light that reflects God; this light is the same reflection found in the eyes of the lone oarsman. In the final canto of the Divine Comedy, St. Bernard prays both for & through the poetry of Dante: “This man – who from the deepest hollow in the universe, up to this height, has seen the lives of spirits, one by one – now pleads with you, through grace, to grant him so much virtue that he may lift his vision higher still – may lift it toward the ultimate salvation” (Par. 33, 22-27). Dante’s “ultimate salvation” is the Oarsman’s “just happened”:
“Well I said, ‘That’s called – you saying, “that just happened” – let’s call that God, let’s give it another name.’
That’s what God is: just happened.”
The enlightenment here is that of a man whose understanding of God is at the same time comforting & comfortable, creating a complacency within him that could just as easily be mistaken for naïveté; this would be a disparaging mistake to say the very least. For the characters of Vernon, Florida – no, for the citizens of Vernon, Florida – God is that whose presence is both unrecognizable & undeniable, a thought that serves not merely as speculation but as a way to live – as a way to stay alive. And still some men find they are able to achieve a connection with God through an understanding of their purpose. Henry Shipes, the turkey hunter whose stories relate the suspenseful, orgasmic highs of finding oneself alone with an unaware “gobbler,” serves the purpose of Man as He has realized The Vision. His constant allusions to the very basic instinct of bewilderment when lost in the woods again brings to light comparisons to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poet’s words from Inferno again reflect the humanity of the pinpoint of light on Earth called Man, or in this case, Henry Shipes: “Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was, that savage forest, dense and difficult, which even in recall renews my fear…but to retell the good discovered there, I’ll also tell the other things I saw” (Inf. 1, 4-9). Shipes speaks with the same poetic air of confusion when faced with Life’s great purpose, if only with different words:
“Around in them pines, everything looks alike. To me it does…you can’t tell where you at.”
And yet to cite the turkey hunter only as a human is to ignore the big picture. After all, Shipes is ultimately the story-teller in the film, the blue pen in his breast pocket a symbol not only of his ability to weave a tale with sufficient suspense, thrill, & climax, but of his status as He with a story to tell. His experience is evident in his demeanor & tales, & yet this complicates matters sufficiently, for he serves as both Dante the Lost Man & Virgil the Wisened Guide. Perhaps this is exactly the point, however; maybe only once Man has lived may he relate his life to help better serve those who have not yet reveled in the joy of experience of purpose.
It seems to all return once again to the same oarsman, however, for he is the one who is The Vision, not simply a realization of some semblance of it. With one hand directing the boat – & thus directing the eyes of the viewer, thus directing the surroundings – he steers around what can only be described physically as post-apocalyptic. In the introduction to “Film and Reality” in Film Theory and Criticism, differing cinematic considerations of reality are described. At times in Morris’ film it seems the most pertinent of these is that of the anti-realists, who believe that “film, like any other art form, must offer an interpretation of the world or, by the manipulation of the camera, create an alternative world” (Braudy 136). Without camera manipulation, however, Morris manages to create an alternative world, one that before seemed only purely speculative: the world of the afterlife, or maybe of the after-death.
Because the oarsman is moving cautiously but without reservation through the End of Days, & yet he manages to be the light among the dark waters & darker trees scattered throughout, seemingly old, bent & breaking. The lighting in the scene, gloriously bleeding from the heavens over the face of the oarsman, blinds his eyes from the viewer & offers even more reason to assume his role as some vision of God’s intent, if only perhaps serving as a messenger for the cause. Despite all this imagery of the light from Heaven, the torn forest surrounding the Divine, the physical realization of the End of Days, the most important aspect still lies in the sound.
For when the camera cuts to this terrifying (& yet beautiful…terrifyingly beautiful?) vision, the Holy Soundtrack suddenly ceases. The crickets, perhaps finding themselves no longer necessary to provide a backing as the unseen spirit now that the Spirit has shown itself through The Vision, are soundless. From a cinematic viewpoint, the elimination of the crickets is merely coincidental, caught on camera only because the timing of day was specific to the cause or because the area houses less crickets, etc. The effect here, then, is one found in the editing, with only two cuts made in the entirety of the 2+ minute scene, one into a close-up of the oarsman’s face & the other to return to a more mid-range view, putting his two hands back in sight.
But if we are to assume this is all post-apocalyptic, then what purpose does the Vision have in being there at all? His eyes filled with God’s glory, blinding him & at the same time reflecting the image of God through him, his place after the end of the world seems unsure. It’s possible that his demeanor is a mocking one, his relating of a conversation concerning the reality of the Divine seemingly coated with hidden smirks:
“‘You believe you’re here, don’t you?’
‘Yeah, I believe I’m here.’
Well I said, ‘Do you believe any man on Earth made you?’
‘No, I didn’t make me.’
I said, ‘Do you believe any man on Earth made Adam & Eve?’
He said, ‘No, I don’t believe it.’
Well I said, ‘What made em? How come I’m here?’”
Could it be possible that the oarsman is having this very conversation for the purpose of allowing “Mr. Dee” the chance for total conversion to The Vision he possesses? Or perhaps the story serves as an allegory for the viewer of the film itself, a sort of warning from God, much like a telegram from the future – or from the end of time. The oarsman in this scene, however, serves an odd parallel to allusions of historic & mythological oarsman, most notably the soul Charon, who rows damned souls across the River Styx in both Greek mythology &, not surprisingly, Dante’s Inferno. If the oarsman typically serves as ferry for the damned in Hell, than how does one explain the Divinity flashing through the eyes of Vernon, Florida‘s oarsman of the post-apocalypse? Perhaps it’s just another way of explaining away misrepresentation or the lost meaning of that which we have understood to possess meaning all along. Is it really a coincidence that following the oarsman’s scene we find the star photographer saying, “Maybe a diamond don’t even shine, maybe it’s just the way it’s cut”?
The transition at this point in the film veers a bit into a slightly less comfortable realm, that of the distinguishing differences between Faith & Free Will, the latter of which is generally dealt with as just an after thought of the Divine Plan in Morris’ film. After all, at its most basic foundation, “just happened” standing in for God is not much different from the explanation the star photographer gives:
“Luck, you know; I mean, when somethin’ turns out, you say, ‘Gee, I’m lucky.’ Right?”
This question is open-ended, though, & thus The Vision, the acceptance of Life in God’s hands, is either incomplete or misunderstood. Or perhaps it’s both? After all, when the film comes to an end, there’s no real surprise who’s given the final words: none other than the Dantean story-teller, the turkey hunter himself. If the oarsman is a representation of an understanding of God & The Vision shown to the enlightened, then Henry Shipes is Man’s journey to reach enlightenment. His acceptance of Life’s Purpose shows a recognition of what Dante himself considered a natural bond between God & Man created by God’s Love, & his tendency to relate stories & characters is all of that which is human in him. His final scene finds him journeying through lonely waters, gazing towards the heavens & considering the purpose of life’s hardships, wondering earnestly why in order to gain spiritual purity & understanding, one must first struggle. This becomes the eternal & inevitable fight within Man, to discover God’s purpose by realizing first that He indeed has a purpose through it all; it will always be Man’s great yearning, to “wish there was as many turkeys as there are buzzards.”
We turn now to my fellow bloggers, & face their decisions & implications on the matters of God, reason, purpose, & Vernon, Florida. The most interesting argument concerning any aspect of the film is found in Robyn’s post concerning the syntactical limitations of language & understanding. Deciding to focus mainly on how Man defines both the structured & indefinable, she asks the questions that really get to the point of the matter: how we do define something? How do we define someone? What if a gopher is really a turtle? What if a boy is really not a boy at all…at least not entirely? Her analysis of the situation boils down to essentially my same views on the topic & are more revelatory concerning my issues with God & purpose than they may seem to be at first. After all, is it incorrect to imply that what we assume to be only crickets could be the faintest trace of God? Both are imperceptible without close examination, both are accepted & understood by only the few who choose to tackle the issue, & yet both are still recognized as being. Perhaps the answers to Robyn’s questions don’t have to do with the naming of things, but rather with the realization that there are things & they simply are. This isn’t to imply entirely that labels or definitions are utterly obsolete, but rather that the understanding of them only by these labels is unimportant. Herein lies the over-arching message that I feel with all my heart Vernon, Florida is attempting to relate to the viewer: accept the unknown not without hope, but without submission.
Because to ignore possibilities concerning the world both divine & earthly simply on causal terms not only shows an ignorance of the mind, but surely ignorance of both faith & the heart as well. One of Ben’s blog posts concerning Morris’ film touched on an issue relative to this subject: that of the importance of pride & the will of man. His statement concerning the amount of pride each character in Vernon, Florida has touches on much more than I think he might have been aware of when originally thinking about it. Theologically, pride is generally considered to be the original & most important of the Seven Deadly Sins, often thought to be the source for the remaining six, as it involves an excessive love of self to the point of contempt for others. If this is true, the characters in Errol Morris’ film are each sinful in some excessively romantic way. In many cases, I can see where this might be the case – the turkey hunter’s desire to charismatically relate dramatic hunting stories; the need to keep wild animals in a backyard cage for the purpose of sale & exhibition – & yet for some reason I can’t help but think that the sins are not cause for damnation, but only for gradual purgation. Each man in Vernon is ultimately full of a recognition of God & speaks with an intense awareness of some Divine Plan, & thus lives with the redeeming qualities of faith, hope, & love. Even if prideful, the mere desire to understand some vision of God is cause for complete, eventual redemption.
And yet still complete understanding is forever elusive to Man, considered with unmatched beauty & mental intensity in Mary-Carolyn’s post about the portrayal of Morris’ film characters as forms of God. In her comments, she manages to think about the most poignant of questions in matters of the Divine: “How do you, anyway, represent someone/something who is all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful.” This again (yes, AGAIN) brings to mind Dante’s work in the final moments of the Divine Comedy, in which his vision of God is perpetually inadequate, only possibly existing through a string of metaphors. When Dante finally reaches The Empyrean, his vision of God is a flowing river of bright light until the moment when the light begins to circle in upon itself & create the shape of a white rose. Blessed souls fly excitedly around the scene as God’s form again changes through Dante’s poetry into the form of three circles of blinding, indescribable light, a final & complete description of that which Dante has no accurate words for. In this sense, the answer to Mary-Carolyn’s problem is that there is no way to show God, only a way for God to show himself; in the case of Vernon, Florida, the Vision of God is the slow oarsman, bathed in light & full of divine paradigms.
But still there is a blog post that brings everything back down to the base level, where thoughts are gloriously untroubled & happiness is anywhere you please. Nathan’s post on the film in general is the beginning & end of the ring of characterizations we as a class associated with Morris’ film, & his notes on humility & pleasure are the most simplistically wonderful. The depth in this post is found in the language: the words “human,” “genuine,” & “value” are praises to God in their own right, practically screaming down the reader to alert them to the merits found within. Because despite all the talk about divinity, hope, & the search for God in something (anything!), Vernon, Florida is really just about the human, & considering the fact that this follows the path of a person & was completed with human intellect, the consideration of the role of humanity in the film is one of the most important. Even if these people are real & yet still characters (as Ben said), & even if they choose not to fully comprehend the importance of understanding that things just are (as Robyn implied), they are a genuine reflection of God’s love. Their value, it is important to note, does not lie automatically within themselves, but rather has been molded with an editing process that serves the purpose of preserving the nature of Man as both original sinner & blessed individual. Nathan calls the citizens in Morris’ film “adorable,” but at this point I’ll opt for true, because after all the debate about truth & reality in the world of the neo-realist documentary filmmaker, I’m betting that no man is truer than he who has come to terms with a personal understanding of his connection with faith, hope, & love. And yet still these words return to haunt me:
“Reality? You mean this is the real world…?”