The Films (5/5, 5/5)
Back in film school I became obsessed with the work of Werner Herzog, and being obsessed with his film's I wanted to see everything the man did or participated in. Eventually, I noticed a film that he did not direct, but was the subject of with the striking, and amusing title Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. I quickly decided that I had to discover if the famous director did indeed go the full Chaplin (Chaplin's character in the Gold Rush ate his own shoe to survive ed.), I went about tracking down a copy of the film anyway I could. When I finally saw the film, I was to discover (aside from the fact that footage from the Gold Rush was indeed incorporated into the final product), that the documentary short from director Les Blank (Burden of Dreams) was made based on a bet placed by Herzog to the struggling first time director Errol Morris. Herzog told Morris that if he would complete his first feature Gates of Heaven, that he would eat his shoe. This is the kind of thing that is normally taken as proverbial, however, Herzog meant it, and he would eat his shoe in front of an audience.
Well, any film that would get Herzog to eat his own shoe for was at least worth my time to track down. This was not nearly as difficult to find, it had a DVD release, as did a number of other Errol Morris films Vernon, Florida included in this set as well as the aforementioned Les Blank short), the Thin Blue Line (also released by Criterion this month), and a more recent success by Morris, the Fog of War. Werner Herzog with his fiction and documentary features usually created films about intense and bizarre people. He seemed to share this eccentric connection with Errol Morris, this is especially obvious in these 2 early features.
Gates of Heaven, which Roger Ebert not only listed as one of his favorite documentaries, but one of his favorite films of all time. The film covers 3 primary subjects, the owner of a pet cemetery that failed, he alleges it failed because he put "his heart above money." We also deal with the owner of a rendering factory, who finds the whole act of burying a pet absurd, and discusses with complete blunt language animals being turned over to him, and how most (especially horse owners) are happy to do so. We then see the camera turned on the owners of a successful pet cemetery, which is manned by a Father, and his two sons, one of which is a failed rock star.
The film has a slow, languid pacing that could almost be described as hypnotic. Morris is not one of those documentarians that narrates and creates a narrative in that regard, rather allowing his subjects to tell their stories in a straight and concise manner. Of course, the people that make up the primary subjects of Gates of Heaven when the camera is turned upon them prove to be a bizarre lot, and although not a laugh riot offer instances of very flat deadpan comedy.
It is easy to understand why Vernon, Florida is included in the package with Gates of Heaven. The two are basically spiritual sequels to one another. Vernon, Florida doesn't really have a subject in the way that Gates of Heaven does. Rather, it seems to document citizens in the Florida panhandle community of Vernon, Florida.
Morris was apparently inspired to go there, after finding out that a number of citizens of the community had participated in acts of self-dismemberment in order to fraud their insurance companies and reap great rewards. When he got there, he didn't realize that people who committed insurance fraud, would be unlikely to discuss such criminal matters in front of a camera, so he moved on to making a film about select citizens of the community.
The deadpan comedy, that was prevalent in Gates of Heaven carries over greatly into Vernon, Florida. The subjects are a bit more diverse as they do not circle one industry, and it does have the same hypnotic ambiance that will keep a patient viewer glued to their seat as Morris' documentary unfolds.
Audio/Video (4/5, 4/5)
Criterion have presented Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida in their original aspect ratios 1:33:1 and a 1:66:1 respectively in a 1080p AVC encoded transfer. Neither of these 2 films will ever be considered reference quality, but for what they are they look quite excellent. The detail present is quite strong, flesh tones are accurate, and black levels are solid. There is a very strong grain presence, but that is to be expected.
Both films are presented with LPCM 2.0 Mono tracks in English. The dialogue in both films is quite audible, and I did not detect any issues of pops, cracks, or hissing on the tracks.
The Blu-ray from Criterion offers 2 interviews with Morris one each per film. Both are in depth and absolutely fascinating. The one on Vernon, Florida that details the Nub City aspect of the film was especially interesting to me. We then get the Les Blank documentary short Werner Herzog Eats his Shoe.
2 of the finest, and most fun documentaries of all time come to Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion. The A/V restoration is quite excellent considering the source material, and the extras are informating and entertaining. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.