Southern Gothic and the Florida Man

By Vincent Dale

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Southern Gothic as “a style of writing practiced by many writers of the American South whose stories set in that region are characterized by grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents.” Cultural critics have since furnished additional shades of detail, including: “deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters, the religious and supernatural, perversion, drug addiction, sacrilege, decayed or derelict settings and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime or violence.” While Florida as a whole isn’t widely considered a part of the South, the state has inherited enough aspects of Southern Culture to allow for the adaptation of the Southern Gothic model. The “grotesque, macabre or fantastic” is almost shorthand for describing the eccentric collection of characters one encounters in Sean Dunne’s groundbreaking, 50­minute 
documentary, Florida Man.

The world first started to pay attention to the idea of a certain archetypal Florida male with the explosive popularity of the “Florida Man” Twitter account (@_FloridaMan). The most powerful aspect of the cinematic medium is giving audiences an insight into the meaning of their own lives and attempting to answer the age­old question of, “How one ought to live?” The brilliance of Florida Man lies in the premise of giving a voice to the marginalized and offering viewers a non-judgmental portrait of other ways to live. Florida Man utilizes hand-held camera work, natural settings and long takes to craft a hyper­realistic portrayal of a shadow world thriving in the sunshine state. The documentary takes down the fourth wall in the first scene when an older Florida male explains, “Why do I get in so many fights? I like it, I swear to God I like it. You might be a big dude, but right there is where my momma got killed at.” The film proceeds to unravel Florida’s soul one painful confession and drunken sideways glance at a time while taking the viewer on a journey through an underbelly riddled with lyrical and visual poeticism.

Aspiring artists often experience frustration and failure when it comes to creating original content. Indeed, it’s easier to resort to cliches and contrivances than to step into the untested waters of original worlds. Florida stories can sculpt their characters from a diverse milieu of demographics found in the state, including but not limited to: large Hispanic and Haitian immigrant populations, African­Americans, families from other states who moved to Florida, Seminole Indians, a high ratio of felons per capita, the descendents of white crackers, a large homeless population and a constant stream of both national and foreign tourists. Our geography is as diverse as our population, ranging from swamp and forest, to jungle and beach. In addition, stories that exist in Florida’s history are dark and oftentimes criminal or violent. A casual investigation into Sarasota’s history yields such noteworthy items as The Sarasota Assasination Society, Christine Chubbuck and the first televised suicide and the mass killing of pelicans by Sarasota townsfolk during World War I. Casually skimming through the Florida Man Twitter account (that undoubtedly inspired Mr. Dunne’s documentary) results in a number of interesting plots: “Florida Man bites off neighbor’s ear because he wouldn’t give him a cigarette;” “Florida Man accused of catching and eating protected tortoises;” and “Florida Man proposes to girlfriend, ties ring to alligator.” The film stands as an almost anthropological record of a certain strain of Florida culture and one of the first recognizable examples of the Florida Gothic genre.

Vincent Dale is a Sarasota filmmaker and the director of No Real Than You Are and Paris Love Conspiracy.

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