Errol Morris has carved out a sizable corner of the documentary genre with probing, personal portraits of larger-than-life individuals (A Brief History of Time, The Unknown Known) and quirky detours like First Person, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. His third film, 1988's The Thin Blue Line, is rightly regarded as one of Morris' most fully-realized and effective efforts, long remembered for its persuasive defense of a wrongfully convicted man. Years earlier, Morris directed his first two features: Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981), which serve as like-minded examinations of unique individuals in their natural habitat.
Gates of Heaven doesn't live and die by its premise: at first glance, it's the portrait of a California pet cemetery and the folks whose precious pets lie under it. Lurking beneath this deceptively layered documentary are wild, quirky, and thought-provoking observations about life, death, love, business, and the human/canine condition. Like the follow-up, Gates of Heaven is free from narration, on-screen identification, wild camera swipes, and traditional music cues; in fact, the first three are largely absent in Morris' entire filmography. Gates of Heaven languished without major studio distribution for years but was championed immediately by the likes of Wim Winders (who called the rough cut "a masterpiece"), Werner Herzog (who ate his own shoe as a result, as documented in Les Blank's infamous short film included as an extra), and Roger Ebert (who ranked it as one of the top ten films ever made).
Vernon, Florida feels like a spiritual cousin to Gates of Heaven, if only due to its respect for borderline absurdity. In the mid-1970s, Errol Morris first planned this as a different film called Nub City, which doubles as an unofficial nickname for the northwestern Florida town due to its unusually high number of amputees; taking advantage of a clause in life insurance policies, some residents would literally remove "an arm and a leg" to collect their policy's full value. After the bold young filmmaker realized that interrogating people who shot themselves for money wasn't such a good idea (he was run out of town for attempting it, actually), Morris returned to Vernon years later to chat with the four-limbed folks. The resulting time capsule is a charming, hypnotic mixture of life stories, armchair philosophies, emotional detours, and disarming honesty that doesn't wear out its welcome at just 55 minutes; in fact, Vernon, Florida could go on twice as long if you're in the right mood. At worst, it's perfect in small doses or feels just right.
Beyond the VHS years, MGM released Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida, and Morris' brilliant follow-up film, The Thin Blue Line in tandem almost a full decade ago, both as separate editions and a three-disc boxed set. Criterion follows suit with a simultaneous release of all three next week; these two are obviously grouped together, while The Thin Blue Line stands on its own. These are landmark films and long overdue for Blu-ray: even if you're not convinced that low-budget, slice-of-life documentaries deserve to be seen in high definition, both films play better than ever with the benefit of director-approved transfers, lossless audio, and a few brief but appropriate bonus features.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
These 1080p transfers, supervised by director Errol Morris, present Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida in their respective original 1.33:1 and 1.66:1 aspect ratios. Like The Thin Blue Line, this is an absolutely terrific presentation of both films that makes them all the more inviting for first-time viewers or those who haven't seen them in a decade or more. Grain is incredibly thick and rich in all the right ways, the films' natural color palettes are replicated nicely, image detail is reasonably strong, black levels and contrast are consistent, and they simply look much better than expected for low-budget productions (in an included interview with Morris, he confesses that the rough cut of Gates was taped together and barely made it through the projector). Modest amounts of dirt, debris, and flickering can be spotted on occasion, but that's the only nitpick I can muster; otherwise, there's nothing to complain about.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p image resolution.
Presented in LPCM 2.0 mono, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida sound about as good as expected for documentaries well past the 30-year mark. Dialogue, not surprisingly, is anchored square in the middle on both and sounds relatively crisp and clear, while the general lack of music ensures that nothing competes for attention; it's very, very, very seldom. Either way, what's here sounds just fine and, like the visuals, this represents a marked improvement over the MGM DVDs. Optional English subtitles are included during both films, but not the extras.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate (and, if I'm not mistaken, it appears to run a little more efficiently than before, which is nice). This one-disc release is locked for Region A/1 players only; it's packaged in Criterion's standard "stocky" clear keepcase and includes attractive double-sided artwork. The fold-out Insert
includes a lengthy essay by freelance film critic Eric Hynes, production notes, and technical specs.
, one per film, serve as the primary extras. In the first (19:19), Morris speaks candidly about Gates of Heaven
and the events that led up to it. Other topics of discussion include his relationship with Werner Herzog, fights with crew members, early reviews of the film, learning as you go, and a few updates on several of the featured "performers". The second (12:08) briefly outlines Morris' development of Vernon, Florida
from initial ideas---the investigation of widespread insurance fraud, as mentioned above---to the final version, as well as comments about key participants, funding difficulties, absurdity, and more. Like his more in-depth interview for The Thin Blue Line
, these chats are extremely candid, entertaining, and well worth a look for new and established fans.
Also included here---and grouped with Gates of Heaven, obviously---is Les Blank's 1980 short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (20:17). It documents Herzog's fulfillment of a wager that, if young Morris completed a documentary and got it shown in a theater, he'd cook and eat his own shoe (which he does). Though Morris doesn't actually remember their "bet" and Herzog likely just did it in hindsight to promote a fellow filmmaker, there's no doubt that the ends certainly justified the means. This isn't the first time I've seen Les Blank's infamous little obscurity...but as far I know, this marks the only official release of it on
disc Blu-ray (and it looks nicely cleaned up to boot, har har).
Errol Morris' first two films explore absurd human behavior in a uniquely humane and respectful way...and though Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida aren't exactly carbon copies of one another, it's easy to understand why they've been frequently paired together on past home video releases (including MGM's DVD collection). Criterion's new Blu-ray package is no exception; not surprisingly, it serves as the definitive edition of both films, serving up two terrific new director-approved transfers and a short but sweet collection of bonus features. Along with the same-day release of The Thin Blue Line, it's been a fantastic month for fans of Errol Morris' early work and the genre as a whole. Assuming you've already picked up Criterion's excellent Blu-ray edition of A Brief History of Time, there's absolutely no reason why these two small but mighty documentaries shouldn't be next on your list. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.