Gates of Heaven; Vernon, Florida, Blu-ray (1978 & 1981/2015)

by | Apr 3, 2015 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Gates of Heaven; Vernon, Florida, Blu-ray (1978 & 1981/2015)

Director: Errol Morris
Dir. of Photography: Ned Burgess
Cast: Lucille Billingsley, Zella Graham, Cal Harberts, Albert Bitterling
Studio: IFC Films/ The Criterion Collection  751 752 [3/24/15]
Video: 1.33:1 for 4:3, 1080p HD color (Vernon, Florida: 1.66:1)
Audio: English mono PCM
Extras: Two new Morris interviews, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) – film by Les Blank on Herzog fulfilling a bet to get Morris to complete his first film, Herzog professing admiration for Gates of Heaven, Essay in printed booklet by critic Eric Hynes
Length: 137 min.
Rating: ****

Nobody does ordinary people better than Morris does in his documentaries. The first one is not really about pet cemeteries in the Napa CA area, but more about the people involved in operating them and the customers who bury their beloved pets there. We hear from both the husband and wife who own the latest per cemetery, and their two sons. And the Vernon, FL one was originally intended to be on “Nub City” – where an insurance scammer had a thing going where people had limbs amputated in order to collect on large insurance policies. However, Morris eventually learned he couldn’t really interview the law-breakers about the scams and therefore just turned his attention to the really odd folks in Vernon, Florida, telling their stories to the camera. The highlight is probably the guy who is monomanical about hunting turkeys and talks at length about it to the camera (which Morris had skillfully adapted to show his face in the lens when people talk to him on film). He talks obsessively about the gobblers he tracks and kills. There is also a fundamentalist preacher who expounds in detail on a single word in his sermon: Therefore.

Both Sisel and Ebert named this film – Gates of Heaven – as the best movie of one year. One learns a bit more than you had decided you needed to know about pet cemetaries, their operation, and their customers. The on-screen images are not concerned especially with the burying of the pets, but focuses on the couples who are using the pet cemetery. There is also a focus on the original good-hearted instigator of the first pet cemetary, whose lawyers/co-partners wanted to dig up 450 pets in order to turn the cemetary (and did) into a building area for homes to make more money.

Not quite as good as his later documentaries such as The Thin Blue Line (also released on Blu-ray by Criterion Collection last month) or the one on the electric chair inventor, these are still worth seeing if you are a fan of documentaries and/or Morris. And it’s great to finally see the Werner Herzog shoe-eating movie which I had heard so much about. (He didn’t really eat the entire shoe.)

—John Sunier

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