Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida

Bubbling Wells Pet Memorial Park in "Gates of Heaven"

GATES OF HEAVEN and VERNON, FLORIDA (Morris, 1978 and 1981)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date March 24, 2015
Review by Christopher S. Long

I believe that “Gates of Heaven”, Errol Morris's 1978 debut documentary about two California pet cemeteries, is one of the most profound examinations of the human condition the cinema has ever produced. Not coincidentally I also believe that we are all crazy, and I mean batshit crazy in an infinite variety of ways both small and large. I also believe that this manifest truth is every bit as beautiful and endearing as it is inherently tragic.

I suspect that the numerous (and irritating) critics who charge Morris with being “mocking” or “condescending” to his subjects just aren't in tune with the director's simultaneously affectionate and despairing embrace of the absurdity of human existence. We peer out at the world through tiny slits in our flesh-covered craniums, attempting to sift a massive information overload through our meager perceptual filters and make meaning from meaninglessness. To do so, we need to choose what to ignore (most things) and what to pay attention to (usually the stuff that makes us feel best). This winnowing process generally drives us a little loopy and certainly guarantees we'll get just about everything wrong, but we struggle along anyway and that's what makes us so fascinating.

And, yes, a bit ridiculous. Witness Phil Harberts (above), eldest son of the family that runs Bubbling Wells Pet Memorial Park in Napa, CA. Phil recently left a job as an insurance salesman to work for the family business, but he still spouts the boilerplate motivational dogma that suggests his heart remains with the corporate world. His blather about the importance of positive thinking and the clearly defined steps to business success becomes increasingly absurd, hinting at a philosophy of “Bazooka Joe” sophistication. Yet he goes on an on, certain he has grasped a fundamental truth and eager to share it with the world.

But wait. “Gates of Heaven” is supposed to be a documentary about pet cemeteries. Why, then, does Errol Morris let Phil ramble on about his half-baked business theories past the point of absurdity? And what about letting sweet but slightly incoherent Florence Rasmussen rant for several minutes about her deadbeat son before eventually getting around, ever so briefly, to the subject of her dear departed dog Skippy? 

The great, great Florence Rasmussen

Morris is making fun of them, screech the naysayers, and perhaps the director's distinct visual style, intact seemingly from the start in this debut feature, invites such an accusation. Working with cinematographer Ned Burgess (after the tyro director fired the first few brave souls to take the job), Morris fixes the camera firmly on a tripod and frames his subjects dead center, staring almost directly into the camera as they deliver uninterrupted monologues sometimes prolonged enough to feel awkward. The interviewees seem to be mounted on a Petri dish for pitiless study through a lens that magnifies their every flaw.

But I think the naysayers reveal their own paucity of empathy. The careful observation of human eccentricity does not imply judgment, only genuine interest. I cannot imagine anyone watching Florence Rasmussen complaining about her lazy son or jumping at the sound of car tires screeching off camera and find her anything but wonderful, wonderfully and eminently human. Phil's pat theories about how to succeed in business without really thinking are pretty foolish, but he is not alone in such delusions. Did you know that there are people who genuinely believe that everything happens for a reason? It's true, I swear to God! Phil is struggling to make meaning of the world and doing it all with the puny intellectual apparatus of a creature one cosmic calendar second removed from wondering how to make fire. Of course he's going to look silly trying to talk about the best way to convince other fire-making monkeys to hand over their cherished green-colored pieces of paper. At least he's trying, and with gusto. And Errol Morris wants to chronicle his heroic journey.

Besides, “Gates of Heaven” is nothing close to a freak show. There may be an inherent absurdity in memorializing one's departed pet by means of a plaque emblazoned with a Hallmark-style epitaph, but the sentiment behind it is deeply serious. This is something would-be entreprenuer Floyd McClure understood when he set out to create his own, ultimately doomed pet cemetery. Sweaty, chain-smoking Floyd oozes sympathy from every pore when talking about the loss of his own collie in an accident and the fundamental horror he feels at the world's casual treatment of pet remains. This sets up a truly extraordinary sequence as the film intercuts from Floyd's gentle commentary to snippets of an interview with the owner of a rendering plant. As Floyd fights back tears, the plant owner, speaking of the dead animals processed at his facilities, can barely keep himself from laughing at how worked up some pet owners can get: “You get some real moaners on the phone.”

Floyd thinks it's so obvious that people would want to memorialize their pets he can't imagine anyone thinking otherwise. The owner of the rendering plant finds the notion so ludicrous he feels the need to stop and sell his audience (Morris on set, the rest of us by proxy) on the fact that people get all upset about their dead pets: it's true, I swear to God!

That's where “Gates of Heaven” gets at something deep in the human psyche, illustrating the notion that each of us is just pacing around in his or her own perceptual cage. We live in our interior landscapes and there's really no outside access to them, just the traces we can see and hear, and spoken words meant to bridge the gap, but usually so inadequate they obfuscate instead. 

It's sad, it's lonely, it's a silly bit of unintelligent design, and it's really quite beautiful to watch people doing their best to work through it all because, hey, we're all forced to run the same race, the one that guarantees everyone ends up in a tie. Morris isn't mocking, he's showing solidarity in the struggle. From inside my own cage, I can't imagine there are people who watch this movie and see all of these characters as being depicted in a negative light. Floyd, Phil, Florence, the woman who sings in harmony with her dog – I love them all. And I get the sense that Errol Morris does too.

“Gates of Heaven” wasn't a commercial blockbuster, but it announced Morris as an important emerging talent. Passionate advocacy from critics Roger Ebert (who later named it as one of his ten favorite films of all-time) and Gene Siskel helped a great deal as did the support of Morris friend and sort-of mentor Werner Herzog whose bet with the young but unfocused director allegedly prompted the film to be made in the first place (more on that in the Extras section below). His follow-up was thus widely anticipated.

“Vernon, Florida” (1981) didn't quite match up to the director's stellar debut but it can hardly be deemed a sophomore slump. Morris doesn't tap as deep a vein this time around, but he finds his share of interesting subjects. The project initially started with Morris's investigation into insurance fraud in a small town known only as Nub City for the high concentration of people who “accidentally” blew off an arm and/or a leg and cashed in with insurance claims. Morris soon learned that these highly motivated entrepreneurs weren't keen to discuss their wily though not particularly repeatable scheme, and after getting beaten up and driven off, he returned to the title town to talk with some of its four-limbed residents.

Vernon's philosopher king

I'm not going to rehash the mockery argument again save to say that the usual accusers might have a better case with “Vernon, Florida” than they did with “Gates.” The Vernon residents are an odd lot with an awful lot of time to kill in this tiny panhandle town. There's the local philosopher king who intently studies a discount jewel he just bought before admitting he has no idea what he's supposed to be looking at. There's the ardent hunter with such an intense turkey fixation that he hears gobbles from behind every bush and remembers the story behind every tiny turkey beard he has mounted on his trophy wall. There's the preacher who delivers a sermon on the etymology of the word “therefore” that sounds even more asinine than any of Phil Harbert's business advice.

The film courts an inherent risk in its series of portraits of rural eccentrics that will be mostly viewed by city folk, but there's little evidence in the movie of any editorial judgment. Perhaps we do gawk at some of their manners, but people who devote themselves to their various obsessions are just inherently funny while doing it. You are too, I promise. Henry Shipes, our full-time turkey hunter, is genuinely passionate about his calling and the excitement he expresses while recounting each and every one of his signature kills really brings him to life even if the viewer scoffs at the possibility of glory in the gross mismatch between human with rifle and turkey with giblets. Once again, Morris is interested in what makes his subjects tick and he finds that the best way to capture it on film is simply to let them talk and talk and talk some more. It's a technique he would continue to refine over the course of one of the most remarkable careers in the past four decades of American cinema.

“Gates of Heaven” is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, “Vernon, Florida” in its original 1.66:1. Both new digital transfers were supervised by Errol Morris and create din 2K resolution. They really look great. The thick grainy look makes a few longer shots look a bit lacking in sharpness, but that's really not a problem at all. This beats the heck out of any previous release of either film.

Both films get a linear PCM mono track which is perfectly suited to the straightforward job of presenting crisp, clear dialogue. Not much to say here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Criterion has included both films on the same disc, each accessible from the main menu. Under each film title, you can also access the features relevant to each movie.

Morris originally worked as an assistant to Werner Herzog on his 1977 masterpiece “Stroszek.” As the story goes, Herzog tired of young Morris complaining about his inability to secure funding for his own movie and bet him that if he could make a film then Herzog would eat his shoe. Morris actually denies remembering the bet or that it played any inspirational role in his making the film. However Werner Herzog is not a man who reneges on a bet; as publicity for the festival release of “Gates of Heaven” Herog indeed ate his shoes (first preparing them with garlic, Tabasco, and onions) and the historical event was recorded by director Les Blank in the aptly titled short “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” (1980, 20 min.) It's a great short that Criterion already included on their release of Blank's “Burden of Dreams” but is now presented here in high-def. As a companion piece, we also get a brief excerpt of Herzog promoting “Gates” at the Telluride Film Festival: “You can make films with your guts alone!”

We also get a new interview (2014, 19 min.) with Errol Morris. It is absolutely fantastic and he responds to the charges of mockery with an apt summation of what I wrote above (before watching this interview!) about embracing absurdity and the basic desperation of life.

“Vernon, Florida” is accompanied only by another interview (2014, 12 min.) with Morris in which he talks about the genesis of the project.

The package includes a fold-out insert booklet with an essay by critic Eric Hynes.

Final Thoughts:
You know what's really crazy? Morris's first two films, a one-two punch most filmmakers would kill for, did not launch a successful career. Unable to earn a living in film, Morris spent several years in the '80s working as a private investigator. Fortunately that turned out to be the perfect training ground for the movie that truly would set him up as a full-time filmmaker, 1988's “The Thin Blue Line” which Criterion has also released the same week as these two movies. Along with the director's “A Brief History of Time” this brings Morris up to an impressive representation in the Criterion Collection. Here's hoping more are on the way.

No comments:

Post a Comment