VERNON, FLORIDA (1981)
directed by Errol Morris
GATES OF HEAVEN (1978)
directed by Errol Morris
Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C
by Walter Chaw Trying to decode what it is about Errol Morris's best work is a thorny proposition. There are times his work feels mocking, but it's always uncertain whether that's extant in the piece or intrinsic in the audience. Certainly, it's tempting for me to compare Morris--especially early Morris--to Diane Arbus or Shelby Lee Adams, but even the marriage of those two artists in opposition or sympathy to Morris opens cans of syllogistic worms. At the least, it's not much of a stretch to predict, just based on his first two films, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida (both sharing space on a new Criterion Blu-ray), that he would one day partner with Werner Herzog--another brilliant documentarian who lives right there on the edge of disdain for subject/spectator, surrealism/documentary, Brechtian absurdity/Maysles vérité--and that the two of them would, together, support someone like Joshua Oppenheimer. I interviewed Errol Morris back upon the release of his Robert McNamara documentary The Fog of War and was existentially worried to do so. All this by way of saying that I don't have the facility to judge the quality of Morris's work. A mountain is a mountain. But I can appreciate its truth, beauty, and implacable impenetrability.
Consider Vernon, Florida, a shortish piece comprising a series of interviews conducted, we surmise, in and around the titular backwater. There's the old guy with a turtle, the turkey hunter who speaks of his craft in holy terms, the couple who are convinced that sand literally grows over time. It's comfortable nonsense at first glance, but it accumulates...grows...until it becomes a towering statement about man's desire to attach meaning to meaninglessness. It's a tricky thesis, you'll agree, because in doing so the viewer is engaged in the same kind of gestalt-finding of coalescing faces in wood grain and stucco. At this point in his career, Morris is invisible. Eventually, there will be the artful recreations, the audible questions in Morris's unmistakable cadence, and above all his "Interrotron" invention, which results in his subjects addressing the camera directly as he interviews them through a television monitor. (I wonder at his influence as much as I do Ozu's careful, static compositions on the coroner sequence in Herzog's Grizzly Man, the Coen brothers' writing, and Wes Anderson's frank, symmetrical blocking.) But here, there's just the camera running and a general lack of affectation, centre-framed subjects notwithstanding.
Vernon, Florida is very much a Platonic dialogue in that it's suspiciously like a monologue disguised as an exchange. Though initially broad as he lays out his avenues of approach, Morris, by the middle and, certainly, by the end, draws his arguments into an overarching comment on...what? Something recognizable, definitely, yet so large that it would be unwise to narrow it down to one thing. It isn't something as simple as finding humanity in "low" subjects, nor as patronizing as that. And yet, as Morris progresses in his career post-The Thin Blue Line--especially with anthology work like his Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and his short-lived Bravo TV series "First Person"--it seems clear that what he's after may be as plain as that. What emerges from time spent with the residents of Vernon is a desire to be heard, passions and beliefs dearly-held (reminding now, too, of Montieth McCollum's astonishing Hybrid), and, as Ebert correctly identified, folks "basically trying to find a pattern for living." What Ebert may have been wrong about, however, is what he saw as Morris's essential affection for his subjects. I don't see that. Morris for me skews more towards the Herzog model, or maybe the Cronenberg model, of alien anthropologist. He's warmer than they are, but it doesn't make him warm, let's say.
Consider that the original title of the film was "Nub City," and that the germ that led Morris to Vernon was a story that the residents there had taken to removing their limbs in order to collect on recently-procured insurance policies. It's the sort of vibe that would subsequently drive him to profile Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. and Joyce McKinney and Donald Rumsfeld. It could be that Morris is interested in morally-neutral freakism for purposes of mining common humanity, or that common humanity eventually emerges whenever people spend (safe/removed) time with other people. Like going to a people zoo. Morris changed the focus of "Nub City" when, he recounts, he was threatened and physically assaulted by amputees displeased by his line of inquiry. I think of the opening of Vernon, Florida: a truck drives towards the stationary camera, spewing dense clouds of what I believe is pesticide behind it. Is there an implication embedded in this image that the residents of Vernon are the product of some literal corruption? What's fascinating about the picture, ultimately, is how the rest of it never completely shakes the subtle hostility of this opening. Nor do the first words we hear, from an old guy sitting on a bench ("Reality, is that what this is?" he asks), do anything to ameliorate it. Morris, very early on, has become sentient. It's problematic to suggest he was ever really attempting something other.
Even his first feature-length documentary, Gates of Heaven (which, notoriously, Herzog declared could not be made and wagered eating his own shoe to prove it), has something like a whimsical feeling in essaying the rise and fall of a pet cemetery in a Vernon-esque town. The Herzog stunt, captured in a 20-minute short by Les Blank (who also documented Herzog's messianic megalomania on the set of Fitzcarraldo in Burden of Dreams), has the markings of something vaguely unseemly. Lately, Morris has said there never was a bet. It's the kind of thing that only feeds Herzog's created image--filmmakers as mythological beast: demigods partway between man and 8mm Brownie. It's a romantic cyborg image, though I wonder at its purpose outside of being Ozymandian. The underlying irony of Morris's films, their greatest strength and the source of their poetry, is that whatever the impulse driving someone to produce a series of death-row interviews, or spend an eternity looking at the equipment assembled by Vernon's over-zealous, over-outfitted, Maytag-repairman-bored cop, Morris's best moments are all effectively examples of the Kuleshov Effect. When these sometimes under-educated roadside philosophers pop with a bit of existential philosophy--like the one feller in Vernon, Florida who talks about exhuming a drowned donkey from a lake (Buñuel!) to find it swarming with "a hunnert perch!"--the jarring disparity between what's being said and who's saying it creates something very much like confused delight.
It's no wonder, then, that Gates of Heaven, which is literally about death and mourning, love and loss, holds so much of this delight. The most famous vignette in what Douglas Sirk called a "slideshow" about one failed pet cemetery and its clients, and one successful one, anchors the film by having little bearing on the topic at hand. The lady in the pink apron and hairnet, sitting in her doorway, cane angled to screen-left at her right hand, is framed before a visual representation of mysterious depth. She's captured engaging in a reverie about her kids, how she's helped them, how they didn't listen to her when they should have, how she misses them now that she's grown old. It's a way to lead into an animated graphic announcing the arrival of hundreds of dead pets to be buried in the valley, and then her thoughts of how you miss your pets as much as you miss your children. "All of a sudden, boom, no animals around." Out of context--just passing by on a stroll, perhaps--it's hard to imagine stopping to listen at this length to an old woman expressing common elder complaints, uninterrupted save for a surprising squeal from a phantom car tire. Morris forces patience and active listening. Listen long enough to anyone and eventually, innately, the individual begins to form social bridges. I've used Morris's films before as an empathy test on friends and colleagues, as a sort of celluloid Rorschach. It's like listening to Tom Waits: If you don't get it, I can't explain it.
I'll point to another segment in which a man explains that animals are completely trustworthy because they are completely knowable, while humans are not because they are not. He says that when you turn your back on a person, you can't know what they're going to do--but with his "little dog," you never have to wonder. The first reaction to Morris's films, or at least when people attempt to talk about Morris's films, is to declare that the picture, whatever it is, is not actually about what it's ostensibly about. It's tempting, then, to say that Gates of Heaven is about the need in people to find connection, or the need to love, or the desire to trust. Look at the moment where an old lady howls "I want my mama!" at her little dog to make it howl back at her. Take it out of context--look at it as an old woman calling for her mother, or substituting for her lost children: the implications are genuinely horrifying. I'd say that Gates of Heaven is about scopophilia and the need to create gestalt and the power of editing in any created medium. Morris, who dabbled once in narrative filmmaking, was always a narrative filmmaker. He used to be a surrealist one.
The problem, if it is a problem, is that as time has gone on, Morris's films have become less oblique. Part of Morris's contemporary patter is to declare that he doesn't know what his movies are about although he's often asked. I would say this is at the very least disingenuous, in the sense that Morris, as one of the few documentary filmmakers known by name, must know that any body of work is inevitably about its creator. In the beginning, Morris was looking for something; now, in the second half of his career, he isn't. It's not a decline as steep as, say, Dario Argento's, but it has similar roots in that both misunderstand what it was that made their films extraordinary initially. It could be said that Morris's later output is an examination of what it was that was so instantly, magically familiar about his first, strangest films. Dangerous to play at detective in this way, but what I'd offer is that Morris was profoundly shaken by not being able to make a film for years after Vernon, Florida--that the success of The Thin Blue Line was for him the point at which his approach irrevocably metastasized into something that, though often good, is less (less "important"?) than his earlier, more mysterious work.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion pairs Vernon, Florida and Gates of Heaven on a single BD-50 in nice if superfluous 1080p transfers--the former presented at 1.66:1, the latter at 1.33:1--sourced from 2K digital restorations supervised by Morris. Their zero-budget, 16mm origins (Super16 for Vernon) remain obvious but the new scans definitely yield more textural detail and a less wild grain structure from these films, as well as improved colour and dynamic range. If anything, Gates of Heaven may have been contrast-boosted a bit too much, as the image suffers from a mild case of black crush. The LPCM 1.0 mono audio is absolutely serviceable across both movies.
The supplemental helping is light and fosters a feeling of déjà vu. An interview with Morris from 2014 is essentially an(other) archiving of what have become canonical stories on the making of the films and Morris's views on his art. For the Gates of Heaven portion of the disc (19 mins.), he tells the tale--well-traveled now after years of post-screening Q&As--of the unfortunate sound editor who contradicted the lady in the doorway (Florence was the lady's name) after she opined "Here today, gone tomorrow," in addition to regurgitating the usual disclaimers: how he's not making fun of people because he loves them, and how he is a seeker of truth. Morris related many of these things to me over a decade ago. I wonder if there's more to learn here. The other part of this HD conversation runs 12 minutes and recounts the "Nub City" origins of what became Vernon, Florida. Blank's short doc "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" (21 mins., HD) is included herein and is what it sounds like: Herzog devouring a boot. In front of an audience. There's also a 1-minute clip, upconverted to 1080i, of Herzog monologuing at Telluride against the studio system and championing Gates of Heaven circa 1980. Liner notes by Eric Hynes do a good job of tackling Morris's work from the standpoint of Morris as an excavator of language and the unguarded moment. It's a good read in and of itself.