Monday, July 16, 2007

Gates of Heaven * Errol Morris * 1980
Vernon, Florida * Errol Morris * 1982

These early documentaries by Errol Morris were two of Werner Herzog’s picks for his nonfiction series at Film Forum this past May. In addition to suitably complementing Herzog’s own oeuvre, there’s a deeper connection between the two directors. As the story goes, when Morris was a young film student, Herzog told him that if he actually made the project he had always talked about—a movie about pet cemeteries—he would eat his shoe. When Morris answered his bet with Gates of Heaven, Herzog honored his end of the bargain. The meal is documented in the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, directed by Les Blank.

Neither film is about one thing, but rather a miscellany of rambling digressions and false starts that revolve around a unifying theme, be it pet cemeteries, or a northwestern Florida town. Gates of Heaven begins as somewhat of a battle against the evil rendering company, contemptuously described by the Foothill Pet Cemetery’s paraplegic proprietor as a kind of animal holocaust, with gas chambers and mountains of half dead “little pets.”

While it is undoubtedly an unpleasant business, the representative from the rendering company is far more amusing, as he laughs incredulously at humans’ sentimentality for animals, his attitude falling along the lines of “Get a load of this, people actually get upset over dead animals! One lady quit and she never saw or smelled anything that went on, it just bothered her mind! Can you beat that?” In this and many other scenes, Morris displays an instinctive comedic ability, with his use of timing and cutting to generate laughter out of an otherwise ordinary statement. That and he seems drawn to offbeat characters—or perhaps they’re somehow drawn to him.

The film features some genuinely touching moments from bereaved pet owners. A sequence of graves bearing epitaphs for the likes of Tippins and Caesar, accompanied with images of departed poodles and kittens and so on is heartbreaking in itself (at least if you’re a sucker for cute puppies like I am). Many of the markers display such warm pronouncements (although a bit saccharine for my tastes) as “I knew love; I knew this dog” and “Dog is God spelled backwards” (sorry, but that last one cracks me up a bit).

One woman ponders over her lost pet, “There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”, expressing, through her own grief-stricken observations, the core of one of mankind’s greatest mysteries—the nature of the soul—an extremely complex notion pared down to its raw essence. Of course, there are also moments in the film that portray the degree of insanity that pet owners can exhibit, perhaps best represented in the woman who accompanies her Chihuahua in a high-pitched squealing duet.

A bit of controversy arises when the Foothill PetCemetery loses its lease, forcing the remains of 450 pets to be exhumed and transported to the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in nearby Napa. The owners of these unfortunate creatures, disturbed from their apparently not final resting places, are outraged.

While interviewing an elderly woman named Florence Rasmussen about the removal of the dead pets, Morris catches a sprawling, incoherent monologue that seamlessly drifts from the topic at hand to complaints about her immobility and ill health (although she later says “people my age as a rule don’t get around like I do”), her insolent grandson who never visits her even though she bought him a car (well, actually she only gave him $400), how he won’t have kids or get married (except he was once married to that tramp and involved in a paternity suit), and so on, contradicting herself every step of the way. Instead of cutting her off as I imagine most filmmakers would do, Morris brilliantly decides to let her run with it, including the entire conversation.

Rasmussen’s speech is somewhat of a segue—a portal, if you will—between the stories of the two cemeteries. Now there is a whole new set of idiosyncratic characters, namely the Harberts’ sons, who are preparing to take over the family business—one a former insurance salesman who tries to organize his office in order “to display the maximum trophies,” the other a mustachioed hippie named Danny who plays guitar in a hammock, daydreaming of becoming a rock star (there’s a great scene where he plays electric guitar on top of a hill with the volume cranked, so that his music can be heard “all over the valley”). Danny has an air of melancholy about him, alluding to lost loves and impossible goals, but one can’t help but laugh a little at the earnestness of his philosophizing—for instance, “the pill has led to a pet explosion” and “a broken heart is something that everyone should experience.” Both sons project a feeling of defeat, as each has returned home after failing to succeed in their own aspirations, falling back on Bubbling Well as a last resort.

Vernon, Florida, released two years after Gates of Heaven, opens with a truck slowly trudging down the street, emitting a billowing cloud of smoke—a comical sight, this slow-moving entity leaving a foggy haze in its wake strikes me as an apt metaphor for the town and its inhabitants.

The film is a character study, surveying various “specialists”—the town’s foremost experts on turkey hunting (this man has the feet and gobblers—”beards,” as he calls them—of his prized kills proudly mounted above the door of his trailer home, each with a story behind it), New Mexican sand (they’re convinced that it is growing*), opposums, turtles, and other animals (“I’ve been bit by everything there is in the country. Wild game, you know. Except a rattlesnake. I was sure enough watching for him.”), and so on. Morris layers these scenes together to create a collage of oddball witticism, a lyrical portrait of a remote corner of the world. In all of his films, one can see that he’s interested in people’s obsessions, particularly if they’re fixated on eccentric or out of the ordinary subjects—like pet cemeteries, turkey hunting, or quantum mechanics (as in A Brief History of Time). Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, which focuses on an elderly topiary gardener, a retired lion tamer, a man fascinated by mole rats, and a cutting-edge robotics designer, might be the best example.

From the film’s portrayal, there are, ostensibly, no kids and few women in Vernon—though, logically, this statement must not be true, it’s somehow believable. Morris has an eye and ear for odd characters—from watching his movies, you’d think that the U.S. is populated entirely by freaks. Most of the Vernon inhabitants we meet are old men who speak with heavy, hard-to-decipher accents; their seemingly rambling speech, when printed on the page, has an oddly poetic quality. One man sits on a bench, examining a jewel he has sent away for in the mail: “I don’t know what I’m looking for. What does a jeweler look for? You know, those guys, when you go into a jewelry store? If you want something examined, they look through a lens. What are they looking for?” And in the instance of the owners of the jar of New Mexican sand: “And now, you see, my jar is nearly full. It grows. It crawls. It crawls up the side of the jar, you see?”

My favorite of these characters is the preacher delivering a sermon on the word “therefore,” which Paul used 119 times in his writing—therefore it must be significant (look, even I’m using it!). Most amusing is his winding journey through the dictionary, each new entry initiating further study, another word to look up: “I found the word to be a conjunction. Now, I had long forgotten what a conjunction was…Webster’s Dictionary said that a conjunction is an indeclinable word that connects two thoughts together. And so I said, What does this word ‘indeclinable’ mean?”

As in Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida recalls the types of ethical questions I touched on in my review of Fred Wiseman’s Hospital. Is Morris ridiculing these people? Are we meant to laugh at them? In this instance, it depends on the viewer—essentially, it’s in the eye (and ear) of the beholder (please forgive the cliché). Morris certainly isn’t laughing at them—he seems to genuinely love these characters, though he doesn’t deny that they’re a strange lot. In a lecture entitled “The Anti Post-Modern Post Modernist,” Morris says of the film: “Like a lot of my projects, Vernon, Florida came out of my failure to do what I had set out to do, which was a story about insurance fraud [the community had a freakish number of “accidental” amputations] which I wanted to call Nub City…Instead, I stumbled on these amazing characters, who I remain very, very fond of.”

While these two films lack the visual sophistication and intricate soundtracks of later films like A Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War, they are nonetheless representative of his distinct style and thematic propensities—unmistakeably Morris's films.

*From “Sand That Grows and Other Stories” by Liam Lacey:

Recently, says Morris, he was speaking at Brandeis University about the capacity for self-delusion in connection with a number of his films. He mentioned the couple in Vernon, Florida: “The one thing we know about sand is that it doesn’t grow.”

A man in the audience pointed out that the “sand” from that part of New Mexico was gypsum which can absorb water.

“So I started thinking: They took this sand from the desert and came back to their humid Florida town, and they open it from time to time and the humidity gets in and is absorbed by the gypsum. I realized I was the one who was deluded.”

No comments: