The film really finds its stride when it abandons this kind of narrative, giving in to the temptation to simply spend time with these goofy, off-kilter people. Even so, one of the things that bothers me slightly about this film is an unshakeable sense that Morris is making fun of his interview subjects, that he’s subtly mocking them and condescending to them. A lot of these people are there primarily for Morris to show off how weird they are, how funny they are. And they are funny, as well as often heart-warming and interesting, but there’s something exploitative about some of the bits included here. This is especially true of the sequence in which two old women bicker back and forth about who loved their dead pets more. I mean, why are they in this film if not for us to laugh at their bitchiness?
Morris also turns his (not entirely unjustified) mocking attitude on Phil Harberts, the older son of the family that runs the Bubbling Well cemetery. His motivational lingo, his insistence on viewing every aspect of life through the lens of business and “success,” is ripe for parody, and to some extent all Morris needs to do to make fun of him is let the guy talk. But it’s also true that the satirical undercurrents of this portrayal come to the fore in the scene where Phil sits surrounded by the trophies and prizes he won as an insurance salesman, and talks about arranging even a Valentine’s Day party for his wife and the wives of his friends as a motivational seminar with games to play and prizes to win.
The scenes of Phil with his trophies are another example of Morris’ tendency towards arranging reality to tell a story. The staging of all these interviews is very artificial: Morris is creating carefully prepared tableaux from the ephemera and props of people’s lives. He seems to sit them down and then arrange objects around them in order to convey various things about them. He’s basically controlling the context of how each person is seen. This is something that he would thankfully move away from in his later films, in which the presentation of the interviews is more straightforward and the emphasis is almost entirely on people’s words. Here, there’s a tone of kitsch that can be distracting and off-putting.
JB: Well, I agree with you about the tone. Even in the best case scenario, if Morris isn’t actively trying to make fun of these people, it’s obvious that he lets them embarrass themselves for his benefit. Then again, we do have to consider the film’s 1978 release. That’s six years before the Christopher Guest mockumentary genre made its first deep footprint with This Is Spinal Tap. (Indeed, these characters seem straight out of Best In Show, particularly the guy who works at the rendering plant who can’t possibly understand why people don’t want to talk about animal rendering during dinner.) It’s also several years before the butterfly collar—and many of the other stereotypical 1970s styles featured in this film—became a universal punchline. So I think there are some elements of this film that seem mocking now that weren’t at the time. For example, what makes Phil Harberts so hard to take seriously isn’t so much that he is excessively prideful about his trophies; it’s that he’s excessively prideful about these gaudy, shield-shaped 1970s trophies, which look so cheap and tacky now and yet were standard issue at the time. Likewise, I doubt that audiences in 1978 laughed at the sight of that huge red Batphone that’s within Phil’s reach as he sits by the pool, but it sure is a funny prop now. After the Guest films, we’re conditioned to look for these juicy comedy accoutrements that at the time were just modern accessories. To a large degree, when we laugh at Gates of Heaven today, we’re laughing at the 70s, and Morris can’t be held responsible for that. (On this note, one of my favorite parts of the film is Danny Harberts’ earnest delight for his “powerful” 100-watt speakers. Funny now. Then, not so much.)
So I wonder if the setting of these interviews is as “artificial” as I think you’re suggesting. Certainly, Morris would want to interview his subjects in places that would evoke their spirit or character, and thus I don’t think interviewing Phil Harberts in his wood-paneled office, with his picture of W. Clement Stone prominently displayed, is any more artificial than interviewing the president in the Oval Office. While I appreciate the simple staging and specific focus of interviews in Morris’ later films—performed using the “Interrotron,” which I’m sure we will discuss later—I also find that I miss the colorful tableaux of Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida. I agree with you that the opening chapter of Gates is tedious, but it’s worth experiencing for the poignant moment when Floyd McClure says of losing his pet cemetery, “I was not only broke but brokenhearted,” and Morris cuts to a shot of a lonely looking McClure sitting in his wheelchair beneath a large tree. Likewise, I love the shots of Danny Harberts in his “House on the Hill,” playing his guitar, showing off his stereo equipment or reclining in his hammock. Images like these bring a richness and sense of place to Gates of Heaven that some of Morris’ later pictures are without.
EH: I don’t want to imply that I dislike Gates of Heaven, because I really don’t. It’s a film with much to admire, and in some ways Morris’ mocking tone is softened by his compassion and sympathy for his interviewees. Not so much Phil Harberts or the oblivious rendering plant guy, both of whom get the worst of it here, but it’s obvious that Morris has warm feelings for the “brokenhearted” McClure and for Danny Harberts. The latter comes across as so sad and isolated in his little house on the top of the hill, having returned from college with his own broken heart after the end of a long relationship. He’s in a listless mood, letting his dreams and musical ambitions slowly slip away into the past. He’s a compelling young man, soft-spoken and gentle, a man whose once great ambitions and optimism have given way to a reserved, modest quietude, settling for something other than the life he’d really wanted. The shot of him standing on the hill above the cemetery, playing a scorching guitar solo through an amp that sends his riffs reverberating through the valley, is surreal and absurd and yet also surprisingly poignant. The moments spent with him are some of my favorites in the film, and with him at least I don’t really get the sense that Morris is mocking him.
The same thing applies to many of the film’s pet owners, who can come across as silly, easy targets for mockery, and yet at the same time their devotion to their pets shines through. The same guy who has that funny little moment where he completes his wife’s sentence with the one croaked word “neutered,” later delivers one of the film’s most moving explanations for why pets should not be viewed as material possessions, why they should be treated with “reverence” rather than discarded like a food wrapper.
This is the kind of stuff I find most interesting in the film: not the mockery of simple people but the way the subject of pet cemeteries brings up all these issues about life and death. The film’s second half, about the Bubbling Well cemetery, really delves into the love and affection of pet owners toward their animals, their desire to know that their pet has not just been callously disposed of, and the thoughts about mortality and the afterlife that are raised by continually dealing with death and loss in this way. The Harberts patriarch Cal even proposes a new religion of his own, incorporated at a chapel on the cemetery’s premises, a religion founded on the belief that any compassionate God or supreme being would care equally for humans and all other animals. I think Morris is at his best when he engages with these issues in a sympathetic way rather than simply poking fun at his hapless interviewees.
JB: Hapless might also describe the subjects of Vernon, Florida. Of course, had Morris been able to follow his original vision, the word we’d use to describe the characters of this second feature effort would be limbless. Vernon, Florida was originally planned to be called Nub City, so named because the town’s inhabitants were known to lop off their own limbs in order to collect insurance money. Death threats made against Morris caused the director to abandon the back-bayou amputation storyline and settle for a modest nonlinear tale of backwoods buffoonery. In my mind the characters of Vernon, Florida are as colorful as those of Gates of Heaven, but somehow they’re also more believable, and thus Morris’ film seems less mocking, even in its most extreme scene when a senile man shows off a turtle and insists it’s a gopher.
If the unspoken message from Morris in Gates is often, “Get a load of this…,” here I imagine the director saying over and over again, “Fascinating!” Vernon, Florida includes a priest who sermonizes about his “therefore experience,” a worm farmer who hasn’t read any books on worm farming but knows the books are all wrong, a woman with a jarful of sand that she swears gets fuller each year and a camouflage-wearing turkey hunter, Henry Shipes. The latter subject is my favorite character, sitting outside his trailer home, where turkey claws and beards are mounted on the wall, breathlessly reliving his favorite turkey hunts.