Kyle’s Criterion Corner: Gates of Heaven & Vernon, Florida

by | Apr 2, 2015 | FILM / TV

It is not exactly a revelation that a movie centering on death would be so philosophical or even existential, but how one involving a pet cemetery, and those behind and around it, is even more thought

It is not exactly a revelation that a movie centering on death would be so philosophical or even existential, but how one involving a pet cemetery, and those behind and around it, is even more thought provoking.

Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris’ first feature, is a rather bizarre entry and a landmark documentary which emerged in the late 70’s.

It’s about the relocation of a pet cemetery out in California.

Although this is what the documentary is technically about, it’s really about people talking and explaining their own philosophies, their history, their love, their deaths, and what makes their minds and hearts move.

Gates of Heaven is a unique and spirited look at the points of view you normally don’t get in the media – It’s the deceptively simple film that got people talking about Morris.
He had the uncanny ability to capture the perfect moments in almost all of his subjects, and was a strong start to his very worthwhile and ongoing career.

In Morris’ next movie, called Vernon, Florida, he set out to make a film about a county nicknamed “Nub City” which had an excess amount of insurance fraud from people voluntarily cutting off various body parts and limbs.

It didn’t end up becoming about that, but at a brisk 55 minutes it’s less about this middle of nowhere town and more about the strange but very real folks who inhabit and color it. It literally is a slice of life encompassing people who don’t have anything too important to do but a lot to impart and pontificate.

There’s the obsessive turkey hunter working for his next kill, an old coot who seems to have an endless supply of creatures he’s caught and willing to sell at just the right price, agnostic interpretations of the universe from a fishermen, and so on. It feels like spending a day there completely at the mercy of the yammering of people who probably haven’t left the rundown town they call home.

It’s a great companion piece to Gates of Heaven, but coming between that and The Thin Blue Line (a documentary which traced the legal troubles of a man falsely accused of murder), it’s easy to overlook as just as interesting but albeit lighter affair.

With the Criterion 2K transfer of these two films is director approved by Morris himself, there is nothing too remarkable in a technical sense. But it does improve greatly over the original, grainier versions.

Part of the charm of the original look is that it is practical, simple, and straightforward.

It does make you wonder how much influence Wes Anderson may have taken from these films as some his more subtle camera trademarks seem to be exercised here. Perhaps the best supplemental I’ve found in a good while is the Les Blank directed Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe short film. Trying to inspire Morris, although he has no recollection of this threat, film-maker Werner Herzog said if he made Gates of Heaven he would eat his shoe.

Herzog does in fact eat his shoe in front an audience no less, but it is a lighthearted look at a man being true to his word and how one actually cooks his shoe. While commentary would have been a treat, two very entertaining and enlightening interviews with Morris round out the extras along with an essay by Eric Hynes.

Roger Ebert listed Gates of Heaven as one of the greatest movies ever made and it really is a “your mileage may vary” kind of a film. There’s such romanticized feelings brought about it, it really soaks into you and charms the willing.

Vernon, Florida similarly has the touch of something you can’t stop watching. Not much is happening, but a lot is being said.

Morris would go on to greater glory with The Thin Blue Line which is easily one of the best documentaries ever made, but his beginnings contained within this showcase are amazing, even if he says he stumbled into it all by raw chance.

Morris, as a documentarian, is enduring and seemingly walked the line of good-naturedly making fun his subjects while providing us a sympathetic branch to hang on to – become ever so engrossed, but also hearing them out.

He provides enough of a listening ear and patience for the curious meditations to come out. His characters are provocative and tell their stories; we just witness it.

Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida
1978, 1981 (United States)
Director: Errol Morris
Spine #751,752
Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, DVD, and Hulu-Plus

Kyle Shearin

Kyle Shearin

Powered by coffee, Kyle Shearin is a regular contributor for RVAmag for better part of the decade. Mr. Shearin studied journalism/film at VCU while eventually graduating from the University of Mary Washington with a B.A. in English Lit. Started KCC (Kyle's Criterion Corner) in 2015. Probably likes a lot of the same stuff you do.

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