Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida Blu-ray Review

     Actors: Lucille Billingsley, Zella Graham, Cal Harberts, Albert Bitterling, Roscoe Collins
  • Director: Errol Morris
  • Format: Blu-ray, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: Criterion Collection
  • Release Date: March 24, 2015



            When Errol Morris was just starting out as a filmmaker, still working his way through film school, he made an infamous bet with German director Werner Herzog over a feature length documentary. Morris became the winner of this bet with the completion of his debut, Gates of Heaven, which resulted in a short film in which Herzog eats his own shoe. This wink-and-a-nod to the famous Charlie Chaplin sequence from The Gold Rush is now a magnificent piece of film history itself, which has only gained significance as Morris continued to make films that solidify his place as one of documentary film’s most prolific directors. The film itself may seem somewhat stylistically dated now, but the human elements of the story remain as relevant today as they were in 1978.


            In the early 1980s Morris worked as a private detective, which developed a set of skills that he then put to use within his art, proclaiming himself a “detective director.” This was never more significant than in his prolific documentary, The Thin Blue Line, which resulted in the revisiting of a murder case and the eventual release of a wrongly convicted man, but there is an investigative approach to the filmmaker’s earlier films as well. Gates of Heaven may feel somewhat stylistically dated, containing mostly ‘talking head’ interviews and simplistically straightforward cinematography, but the content still feels advanced beyond what most modern documentaries are able to accomplish.


            The narrative behind Gates of Heaven is remarkably simple, leaving much of the impact on the verbal prose and emotions of the subjects being interviewed. The film starts out being about a simple pet cemetery and the service it provided many in the small area near Napa Valley, California, along with the many grieving pet owners who made use of this service. This cemetery happens to be in an area which is distinguished by a rendering plant, which was often used for the disposal of animal carcasses, large and small, prior to the creation of a pet cemetery by paraplegic Floyd McClure. Eventually the narrative shifts to the events following the closing of the cemetery, including the transfer of the pet graves from one location to another. This was what drew Morris to the story, though it clearly becomes much more personalized with the individual narratives told from various pet owners affected by this move. More of the film relies on these personalized interviews than any of the events surrounding the cemetery or its closure.


            If Gates of Heaven is about the people despite a news story drawing Morris to the subject, Vernon, Florida chooses to focus almost entirely on the people, with their location almost serving as a supporting character to each individual narrative. The individual interviews are from a variety of residents in the backwater town, seeming somewhat random at times, but the collection together makes a kaleidoscope of unique personalities living together in the same area. This approach could have been taken to tell the story of any town in the United States, though Vernon seems to produce a particularly eclectic bunch. This includes a turkey hunter describing his many hunting trophies, a preacher giving a sermon on the word “therefore,” and even an elderly gentleman whose hobby/profession is gathering random creatures to keep and sell.


            With Gates of Heaven running at 83-minutes and Vernon, Florida merely 56-minutes in length, it is a wise choice to include these two early Morris films together. Even thematically and stylistically, these films seem meant to be paired together, available on this Blu-ray disc with a new 2K digital restoration of both films which was supervised by the filmmaker himself. The disc also comes with two new interviews with Morris, along with footage from Herzog. This includes footage from 1980 where he praises Gates of Heaven, as well as the short film in which he eats his shoe. Also included is an insert with an essay from critic Eric Hynes.  


    Entertainment Value: 7/10

    Quality of Filmmaking: 9/10

    Historical Significance:  9/10

    Special Features: 8.5/10




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