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GATES OF HEAVEN/VERNON FLORIDA
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Director: Errol Morris
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 (Gates of Heaven)
Anamorphic Widescreen 1.66:1 (Vernon, Florida)
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 83 Minutes, 56 Minutes
Release Date: March 24, 2015

Death is for the living and not for the dead.”

Films ***

Errol Morris has, if anything, made his mark as one of the most important film documentarians of all time, if not THE most. Standard Operating Procedure, The Fog of War and The Thin Blue Line are striking examples. Not only are they Morris’ finest work, but they represent the absolute best of the entire genre.

But everybody has a starting point, and before Morris broke new ground with those later films, he began his filmmaking career with two simple as can be portraits of everyday folk. Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are about as close as you’ll ever get to capturing real people on film, in addition to the very environment they inhabit. Both films don’t contain any voice over narration, or music for that matter. It’s simply people and their stories that are front and center here, and most of it truly fascinating!

Gates of Heaven. the strongest of the two films, details the existence of a pet cemetery in California, and the people connected to it in one way or another. In particular, that of one Floyd McClure, the proprietor of the cemetery who dreamed of opening up one ever since his dog died. And in a staggering development, we learned that his dream establishment experienced an unfortunate case of bankruptcy, which also resulted in each of the buried pets having to be dug up.

The focus then shifts to an area in the Napa Valley, where a man named Cal Harberts has pretty much continued what McClure had started. Not only has Harberts started his own cemetery, but he also happened to re-bury each of the pets that previously laid in McClure’s property. We also get a glimpse of the owner’s two very different sons, Phil and Dan. Phil had a previous working endeavor in the insurance business, while Dan is more of a free spirit who composes rock music in his spare time.

Vernon, Florida, released three years later, is a most fitting companion piece to Gates. Morris turns his attention to a small, backwater town for numerous vignettes concerning some distinctive townsfolk. Among them are a most determined turkey hunter and a minister with quite a bit of curiosity within him. The town also earned the nickname “Dub City”, because it’s believed to have a bewildering number of amputees among its citizens.

Though I do find the later entries in Errol Morris’ filmography to be much stronger, Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida are pitch perfect slice-of-life portraits. Morris clearly found a niche for evoking potent storytelling by way of the simplest approach in existence, and that is beautifully illustrated in these two films.

Video ***1/2

Getting to experience these films for the first time on Criterion Blu-ray truly is a treat, especially since it’s my first time seeing both of them. You can barely tell these movies were made more than 35 years ago. Yet at the same time, image grain has been given the perfect amount of presence, giving the picture lots of richness. The overall detail is quite riveting, especially in the capturing of the California landscape in Gates. For a couple of films that are as truly low budget as it gets, Criterion’s top of the line mastering job definitely delivers a look that is better than expected and then some!

Audio ***

The 2.0 mono mixes on both films are just about as good as one can get from this type of film with this much age to it, which is to say that Criterion has, once again, done a most impressive job. Spoken words are the key ingredient here and it sounds terrific from beginning to end. And some rock music even pops up later in Gates, providing a true audio highlight!

Features ***

Both films come complete with terrific new interviews with Errol Morris. There’s also a intriguing twenty minute short entitled “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”, which captures the filmmaker living up to a bet he made if Morris completed his first film. Herzog is also featured briefly in a bit of footage from the 1980 Telluride Film Festival where he displays his admiration for Gates of Heaven. Rounding out the package is an insert featuring an essay by critic Eric Hynes.

Summary:

Criterion has provided terrific showcases for the works of Errol Morris, and this two-for-one Blu-ray offering of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida continues that beautifully. It doesn’t get much more up close and personal than these two slice of life docs, which is a must see case if you are curious to see how Morris’ career started off.

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