Gates of Heaven/Vernon, Florida
Gates of Heaven (1978)
This is a documentary about two pet cemeteries in Northern California, but it’s also, ostensibly, about the relationship that people can have with their pets. On the surface it is just that; a rumination on the idea that some people view their pets like part of their family, and want to bury them in order to have peace and closure. I think that’s an interesting topic, and it could lead to interesting thoughts about the nature of human relationship, and our need to anthropomorphize the world around us. Unfortunately, I don’t think director Errol Morris was interested in making that particular documentary.
I think Morris was far more interested in the people themselves, rather than what they were actually doing. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, it’s what makes the films of Les Blank so absolutely wonderful to me. Blank did wonders with simply finding interesting subjects and allowing them the freedom to be themselves. His films present an incredible slice of time and place. Morris is attempting to do the same with this film, but the problem for me was that the people he found just weren’t that interesting. I found myself bored with this film, losing track of who was talking or where in the story we were. There just weren’t enough moments of interest to sustain the film, especially given that the locations he was in were pretty bleak and unattractive.
It’s funny that the film made me think of the work of Les Blank though, as there’s a short film of his included with this one that I actually enjoyed far more. It’s called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and it delivers on exactly what the title suggests. Apparently Herzog was a good friend of Morris’, and in order to encourage him to actually finish this project, he agreed to eat his own shoe if the film ever premiered. That premier happened in Berkeley, and Blank decided to document it for posterity. It is both wonderful and hilarious. For one thing, Herzog turns out to be very serious in his opinion that he was doing something courageous in supporting Morris by doing this. And, for another, he eats his own shoe. It’s an absolute delight.
Vernon, Florida (1981)
This film does a far better job of achieving the goal of simply finding interesting people and allowing them to provide a compelling story. The people of the town of Vernon are hilarious, endearing, perhaps slightly crazy, and well worth watching. The film does a wonderful job of allowing them to simply exist, without placing any judgments on their stories, or behaviors. We get to spend some time with a variety of characters, but I think the one I enjoyed the most was a Turkey hunter that talked at length about his various exploits. I should mention that I have absolutely no desire to take part in hunting. I’m not opposed to it, necessarily, depending on what’s done with the animal after, but I personally feel no great need to kill anything.
Still, I thoroughly enjoyed this man, and his ridiculous tales of bravery against a bird he claims is “the smartest animal in this country.” I’ve learned over my life that I can enjoy listening to anyone talk about anything, as long as they’re extremely knowledgeable and passionate about what they’re talking about. I find obsession fascinating, and this man is definitely obsessed with Turkey hunting. He speaks about it as thought it’s an almost religious experience, which I think for him it might very well be. His passion is contagious, and though I think I’ll remain free from my own Turkey shooting experience, I do have a different understanding of the love some people clearly have for the endeavor.