The key moment in Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven comes early, when the owner of a rendering plant discusses how he talks about his business. The owner recounts a dinner party where he was encouraged to not speak about his admittedly unpleasant-sounding work. He argues, rightly, that no matter how unsavory his work may sound, the products of rendering (gelatin, cosmetics, nail polish, etc.) are used by nearly everyone. In contrast, when Floyd McClure, a would-be entrepreneur in Los Altos, California, talks to people about his wanting to open a pet cemetery, which only really benefits bereaved pet owners, they’re delighted. The difference, of course, is a matter of presentation, as rendering is practical but ugly and barbaric in its methods of taking apart an animal’s body, whereas the cemetery functions to sustain the illusion that a beloved pet is still intact in some way. Morris isn’t just ruminating on the idea of death, but on what humans choose to do with the dead, which depends largely on aesthetics, an element that connects directly to the director’s unwavering fascination with how matters of memory, geography, and belief are presented visually.
In interviews, the plainspoken McClure isn’t florid when he discusses his dream of running a pet cemetery, and he’s sincerely moved to give people a proper place to lay their pets to rest. Morris also gives plenty of screen time to McClure’s business partners, who prove candid when speaking about the financial promise, and eventual woes, of McClure’s plan, and the general inability for McClure and the investors to agree on how to run the cemetery. The inner workings of how an independent venture gets off the ground is of distinct interest to the director, and there’s a sense that Morris sees these woes, which lead to the closing and evacuation of McClure’s business, as a reflection of the way he had to scramble to secure funding for Gates of Heaven.
McClure’s general business philosophy is different from that of John “Cal” Harberts, who runs the Bubbling Well Pet Park, the gorgeous spread of land that starts housing the bodies of the pets dug up at McClure’s plots. Interviewing the members of the Harberts family, the filmmaker directs his attention to the sense of performance that Cal and his two sons, Phil and Danny, evoke in front of the camera. Cal is a sympathetic charmer when he meets with clients, taking some extra time to gush over the photo of a recently departed puppy. When interviewed alone by Morris, Cal expounds on a bunko religion that he seemingly believes in full stock, a fact that ties him even closer with Phil, an ex-motivational speaker who goes on at length about the power of suggestion. And as a songwriter, Danny, the younger son, practices a similar sort of verbose storytelling on his own terms. Whereas McClure just wanted to start a business, the Harberts are selling a concept of death as pageantry, the comforting idea of a spectacular send-off to the great beyond.
The style in which the Harbert family sells the act of passing on is what makes them successful and separates them from McClure, but only at the expense of ostentatious scenery and unsubstantiated “certainties” that they preach. The gaudy look of Bubbling Well, the customizable resting places, and the salesman-like empathy that the Harbert family practices makes them more legitimate in the eyes of a consumer. Morris is careful not to overstate just how much money has to do with all of this, but the images of Phil poolside, or in a room with all his trophies, and Danny leisurely taking an afternoon to play guitar in a hammock similarly sell an ideal of comfort and success that’s undercut by the shaky performances that each of the Harberts gives when facing Morris’s camera.
In contrast to Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida is an utterly captivating musing on the work of filmmaking, and the wandering that goes into choosing subject matter. Among the handful of residents that Morris gets on film, the central idea that all of them express is a sense of patience, and the importance of getting lost. A turkey hunter describes simply listening for a single noise to guide him to his prey; a cop waits in his car daily, bemoaning not knowing where the next crime will come from; an older man looks carefully at a jewel, and yet talks about having zero idea what he could possibly be looking for. Morris balances these minor diatribes and monologues with scenes of basic technical know-how, such as when a mechanic fixes and inflates a truck tire. In the collision of these scenes, Morris offers a liberating note to young filmmakers, like himself at the time, to trust their instincts and curiosities rather than overthinking narrative thrust or any concept of “substance.”
Together, these films prove crucial to understanding the particular interviewing and shooting style of the master behind The Thin Blue Line, Tabloid, and Mr. Death, and also indicate how the filmmaker’s approach to both interviewing and cutting has changed. The interviewing process has become more central to Morris’s films, and there’s a more strictly journalistic tone to his recent work. The sense of place in both Vernon, Florida and Gates of Heaven is central to both works, but is largely absent from Tabloid or The Unknown Known. Those later works are just as fascinating and enthralling as his first two films, mind you, but the sense of geography has given way to an interest in recorded audio, archival footage, and articles. Nevertheless, at the heart of The Unknown Known are the same concerns as those mulled over in Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, namely the fallibility of authenticity, and how falseness can often say so much more about a person, town, institution, or business than “reality.”
The grain levels are nice and thick, while the sunbaked colors of each film are surprisingly vibrant, from the mock-Eden pet cemetery in Gates of Heaven to the echoing streets and abundant nature of Vernon, Florida. There is, of course, some debris and dirt from the film stock, but its never obtrusive, and black levels are consistent and inky. As Errol Morris doesn’t use much of any non-diegetic music in these films, the LPCM 2.0 mono tracks only have wild sound and speech to handle, both of which sound strong and resonant, if not exactly immersive.
Frankly, any package that includes the famous Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe short would be worth the purchase. The short, which documents Herzog chowing down on a shoe, after losing a bet over whether or not Gates of Heaven would even be made, is a complete delight, and a weirdly touching tip of the hat from one master filmmaker to another. To back this up, the package also includes footage of Herzog gushing about Morris’s debut at the Telluride Film Festival. It’s not all Herzog, however, as Morris shows up on two video interviews to discuss his first two films, both of which offer key insights into his memory of making the films, but are too short to dig very deep. An accompanying booklet includes a great, probing essay from Eric Hynes on both films.
Criterion gives Errol Morris’s essential first two features an expectedly brilliant A/V transfer, packaging the films with extras that attest to the reverberating influence of Morris’s films.