With his trademark mixture of empathy and scrutiny, Errol Morris has changed the face of documentary filmmaking in the United States, and his career began with two remarkable tales of American eccentricity: 'Gates of Heaven' and 'Vernon, Florida.' The first uses two Northern California pet cemeteries as the bases for a profound and funny rumination on love, loss, and industry; the second travels to a languorous southern backwater and meets a handful of fascinating folks—a determined turkey hunter, a curious minister, a laconic policeman—engaged in individualistic, sometimes absurd pursuits. Morris consistently creates humane portraits of true candor, and these early works remain two of his greatest and most provocative films.
When you hear the word "documentary", a few names immediately come to mind. Two of those names might be Werner Herzog ('Burden of Dreams') or Michael Moore ('Roger and Me'). A third name, someone who has made some of the most influential, interesting, and informative documentaries is Errol Morris. Morris even created a new kind of camera system for his documentaries called the Interrotron, which the filmmaking industry continues to use today.
This Interrotron allows Morris and his subjects to discuss a variety of topics through the actual camera lens itself. In Morris's more recent films, this technique is used more often than not, but one thing has remained constant, is that Morris relies on straight up interviews rather than narration to tell whatever story he is trying to tell. But before Morris's bigger known films, such as 'The Thin Blue Line' or 'The Unknown Known', he made a couple of amazing documentaries back in the late 70s and early 80s called 'Gates of Heaven' and 'Vernon, Florida'. The documentaries put Morris on everyone's map as a talented filmmaker to look out for in the future. These two early films set the stage for the unique and uncompromising film career of Errol Morris.
'Gates of Heaven' follows a couple of families and their pet cemetery businesses in California. Without the use of a narrative or even narration or a score, Morris only interviews these families and other people about their thoughts on putting their beloved pets to rest. The result is a charming, funny, and bittersweet outlook on the relationship between humans and their pets. Through these interviews, Morris gets a glimpse of what life means to the common people of America and how business and industry affect our emotions and decisions in these difficult times. It seems like a strange subject to document, but when Morris found out that one of these pet cemeteries had to close down, and the hundreds of buried pets had to be dug up and moved to another location, he thought it would make for an engaging film where people might think of their pets as a member of the family that deserve the same rights as humans. I know I agree with this.
A couple of years later, Morris turned in a documentary called 'Vernon, Florida', which was kind of life threatening at first for the director. The town in Florida was known as 'Nub-City', due to the high number of people who would volunteer to cut off their own limbs as a way to collect insurance money. Originally, this was what Morris set 'Vernon, Florida' to be about, but the citizens weren't too happy about it and began to threaten his life and eventually ran him out of town. A little while later, he came back to the town and focused on the many different and eclectic people who lived in this small community. Everyone here as all four limbs now and Morris wants to hear these people's stories and outlook on life in the small swamp town of Vernon. He meets people who think sand grows to a larger size, the pros and cons of turkey hunting, and stories of people with several brains.
It's a genuine, funny, yet oddly charming look at life in a small town. Morris really engraved his name in the annals of filmmaking with these two brilliant films and made an impact on the movie industry and his colleagues that would further his career for many years to come.
'Gates of Heaven' and 'Vernon, Florida' comes with excellent 1080p HD transfers and are presented in 1.33:1 and 1.66:1 aspect ratios. According to the Criterion booklet, these transfers are new 2K digital restorations of both movies, which were heavily supervised by Errol Morris himself. No, these films do not look brand new, nor do they have that look like it's been through the digital car wash. Instead, Criterion has done a brilliant job of keeping the image true to its natural state and look, with cleaning up the image here and there.
Needless to say, this is the best this film will probably ever look on home video. The detail is fairly sharp and vivid, specifically in closeups where the new image gives life to facial features and clothing. There is always and very nice layer of grain, keeping with that good filmic quality that both these films have, and is always very consistent. The colors have remained natural and true to source with zero hindering of saturation of light levels. I wouldn't say that the colors simply pop off screen, but Criterion went with a realistic vibe here, which is always welcomed.
Black levels are deep and inky when the need to be and skin tones are always natural as well. These films are very low budget documentaries, where the video footage and cameras used, were not the best. There are still some instances of some scratches and debris on the print, but it's what Morris wanted, so there really isn't anything to complain about, since Criterion has produced a very true to source, high definition image, leaving this video presentation with great marks.
Both documentaries have LPCM 1.0 mono mixes and sound quite good. Again, since these films were made on a very low budget a long time ago, there really isn't a lot of full or robust sound to be had here. You can add that these films are documentaries with barely any music and zero score to them. Instead, there is really only dialogue in the interviews, which is perfectly situated on the center channel.
The voices are clean and crisp throughout, but nothing really stands out in the way of lively sound effects or any directionality. This audio presentation does what it needs to do, given the circumstances here, meaning you will be satisfied, but not blown away.
Interviews with Errol Morris (HD, 32 Mins.) - There are two brand new interviews with Errol Morris on both films. With 'Gates of Heaven', Morris discusses how he came into making the documentary, updates on the subjects, not getting along with his crew members, and his relationship with Werner Herzog. It's a great interview. The other interview is on 'Vernon, Florida', where he talks about how he came up with the idea for the film, the differences in the final version from when he first started, his subjects, and the hardships of trying to finish the film. Both of these interviews are excellent.
'Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe' (HD, 21 Mins.) - This is a very fun and obscure mini documentary by Les Blank from 1980 where Werner Herzog placed a bet with a young Errol Morris. The bet was that Morris had to make a documentary and show it in a theatre. If he completed this task, Herzog would literally eat his own shoe. Must see to believe.
Footage of Werner Herzog Admiring 'Gates of Heaven' (HD, 1 Min.) - At the 1980 Telluride Film Festival, Werner Herzog stated his love and admiration for Errol Morris and 'Gates of Heaven'. Weird extra.
Criterion Booklet - Here is a 12 page fold out booklet with information on both films and an essay by Eric Hynes.
Criterion has knocked this release out of the park. Errol Morris is one of the best documentary filmmakers to ever have a movie on the big screen. These two very early films in his career are moving, entertaining, and unique, both will spark conversation with your friends and family. The video and audio presentations are both true to the sources, and the extras are all worth your while. Highly Recommended!