Criterion Collection: Gates of Heaven / Vernon, Florida | Blu-ray Review
Long before he developed the still controversial cinematic technique of utilizing reenactments in The Thin Blue Line or his confessional-esque straight-to-lens Interrotron which was used for the first time in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and continues to employ in works like his recent It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports series for ESPN, Errol Morris was struck by the absurdities found within the average American. Superbly paired together in their first HD home releases by the Criterion Collection, Morris’s first two features, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, simply observe the expressive outpourings of rural folk, the lens taking in their unaccountably amusing opinions, worries and musings on life and local events with local, unadorn color featuring above all.
The start of Morris’s filmmaking career unfolded in the wake of working alongside friend and provocateur Werner Herzog on Stroszek after failing to follow through with his own initial project on the famed serial killer Ed Gein. Always a news junky, Morris had a read a story about Vernon, Florida in which the town had been dubbed “Nub City” thanks to an unusual number of residents who were caught committing insurance fraud by claiming gruesome non-accidental limb incidents were actually in fact accidents. Fascinated, he visited the town, but had little luck finding a film in the skittish, limbless criminals, thus, luck struck when he read another news story in which 450 departed pets were being exhumed from a cemetery and relocated to another in Napa Valley.
As luck would have it, Morris found cinematic gold in the good people of the Napa Valley for what would become his first feature, Gates of Heaven. Squarely framed, plainly interviewed and as casual and unconcerned with personal vanity as a filmmaker could ever hope for, Floyd “Mac” McClure, the sanguine proprietor of the unfortunately folded pet cemetery, his competition at the nearby rendering plant, a colorful variety of the unhappy former pet owners, and John “Cal” Harberts and his two sons, owner and operators of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park are given free reign to speak their mind and give their side of the story, whatever their part of it may be. What seeps to the surface of this deceivingly simple collage of faces and anecdotes is a serene appreciation for humanity’s odd fondnesses, whether they be for comforting the morning or blasting electric guitar to the deceased.
After the success of Gates of Heaven thanks to the ceaseless on-screen enthusiasm of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, Morris went back to Vernon in search of another story, that of the unassuming rural community whose legend was not that of extreme insurance fraud, but of hunting, fishing, trapping and ruminating on whatever random ideas came to mind while in the act. Less narratively structured than his previous film, but visually unvaried, Vernon, Florida feels more like an endearingly backwoods mélange, complete with possums, antlers and the tranquility of the southern swamps delicately shaded by the overlooking weeping willow.
Both films, despite their relative simplicity are transfixing and often startlingly funny thanks to their endless supplies of zealous characters. Though the cinematic interview was certainly nothing new, the people Morris manage to encapsulate on screen surely had not considered what filmgoers would think of them. They act completely relaxed, as if the camera wasn’t present, just shooting the shit. Though Morris would arguably go on to make some of the best interview-centric films ever made over the course of the following decades, these films are unique in their rich, absurd sense of candidacy. True gems, the pair of them.
Cleaned up though appropriately grainy, these films brim with character and look better than they ever have on home video. Boasting fine detail and naturalistic color tones that only enhance the oddball realities within the films, the HD presentation is as good as its likely to ever be. Both films come with their original mono soundtracks, unadorned and generally just conversation based, but clean and crisp.
Interviews with Errol Morris
Split in two pieces, one for each film, this conversation with Morris sees him speaking on how each film came about and their enduring meanings for him personally. 19 min & 12 min
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)
Having bet Morris that if he were ever to finish a feature film on the topic of a pet cemetery and have it shown publicly to a paying audience, Werner Herzog would eat his shoe. True to his word, he did, before an audience and filmed by fellow filmmaker Les Blank in this fun short, which is one of the few Blank films missing from the recently released Always For Pleasure Criterion box set. 20 min
Herzog at the 1980 Telluride Film Festival
Just as it sounds, Morris’s friend and cinematic mentor Werner Herzog is seen here professing his admiration for Gates of Heaven at the festival which now has a theater named after him. 1 min
This fold out pamphlet is centered around an incredibly perceptive, career spanning essay on Morris by critic Eric Hynes and contains film credits, as well as details on the transfer.
While subsequent Morris films would delve much deeper into the human psyche and ultimately the depths of which deception can subjugate one’s perception of one’s self and the world around them, his first two features are earnest stepping stones on the road to subjects of greater gravity, but no less compelling. But pairing them together, we see through a portal in time in which a fledgling filmmaker was testing his craft and finding flickers of brilliance in the non-fiction cinema unknown. For documentary lovers, this is a must have release.