Gates Of Heaven/Vernon, Florida and The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1978/1981 and 1988) Of all the brilliant American directors to emerge in the 1970s, Errol Morris deserves a special place in movie history. There simply aren’t many filmmakers who have developed a distinct movie language all their own. Sure, watching an Errol Morris documentary now doesn’t quite have the shock of originality that it did when he first emerged. After all, his unique documentary style (so bizarre initially that Oscar voters refused to even consider them documentaries) has been so absorbed into the medium that there are now entire channels dedicated to the style of work he once struggled to produced. Still, even all these years and imitations later, there’s only one Errol Morris. No one quite has the same interest in the peculiarities, hilarity, and tragedies of humanity. No one else is capable of getting documentary subjects to open up and embody those themes quite like him. This week the good folks at Criterion have spiffed up and released Errol Morris’ first three movies on Blu-ray and given that two of them are genuine masterpieces that might be the finest achievements in the history of documentary filmmaking, that should be enough to make any cinephile dance in the street.
Morris’ debut Gates Of Heaven is one of the most striking debut features any director has ever spat out into the world, even though the subject is so peculiarly small. Broken down to a plot description, it’s about a failed pet cemetery being absorbed by a larger and far more successful pet cemetery. Yet, the film is about far more. By simply speaking to the pet owners, pet cemetery managers, and one loony rendering plant manager, Morris opens up discussions about mortality, commerce, family, jealousy, humanity, and the existential joy of rocking out. There’s so much to unravel in this film that still somehow feels fleetingly small. Morris found a collection of small town eccentrics and used their very personal experiences to open up some very big philosophical discussions. It’s a film comprised of interviews, all of which are composed with the rigid character defining frames of a Wes Anderson flick flying in the face of fly-on-the-wall observational doc conventions. There was nothing like Gates Of Heaven at the time and there still isn’t, because despite being so acutely observed and bizarrely resonant, it’s also an incredibly hilarious movie. Every person to appear on camera delivers dozens of laughs, leading many to accuse that Morris was mocking his subjects. Yet, that dismissal is missing the point. Morris loves these people, loves these worlds, and loves how accidentally hilarious we all are when we let our guard now. Gates Of Heaven is an extraordinary little movie about everything and nothing all at once that everyone needs to see at one point in their life, if only to feel a little less alone.
Also included on the same disc as Gates Of Heaven is Morris’ follow up doc Vernon, Florida and that’s entirely appropriate. At a trim 56 minutes long it’s not even technically a feature and compared to the other two Morris films Criterion is putting out simultaneously, it’s clearly the minor effort. In fact, the most fascinating aspect of the film is what the director couldn’t include. Morris conceived of the film before his debut, based on a small town in Florida known as “Nub City” where many of the residents voluntarily removed limbs as part of a large insurance scam. Now, obviously that’s a fascinating subject for a documentary and even more obviously, no one wanted to discuss their crimes on camera as intriguing as they might be. Instead, Morris made a small portrait documentary about the few residents who the director was able to interview. It’s an oddball little collection, including a turkey hunter, a worm farmer, a disinterested policeman, and a preacher. Like Gates Of Heaven, Morris simply stands back and lets his subjects reveal themselves and their personal philosophies through carefully composed frames. It’s a hilarious, moving, and bizarre little movie, just one with nowhere near the focus or depth of Gates Of Heaven. Yet, simply as an ode to a very specific brand of Southern American eccentricity, it’s a delightful little early effort from Morris that certainly deserves attention as a companion piece to Morris masterpiece of a debut.
Then we come to The Thin Blue Line, one of the most important documentaries ever produced and richly deserving of its own Criterion disc. As beautifully made as Gates Of Heaven might be, it was only with The Thin Blue Line that Morris unlocked his personal filmmaking style. The subject is the murder of a police officer and the wrongly accused man who was sitting on death row for the crime. Morris came to the documentary after working as a private investigator in the long lean 7 years since he made Vernon, Florida. He stumbled onto a murder case in which he knew an innocent man went down for the crime and made a documentary proving his theory. As a work of investigative documentary filmmaking, The Thin Blue Line is a milestone masterpiece that actually got an innocent man freed from prison. That’s undeniable. Yet the film might be even more important for how extraordinarily well (and at the time experimentally) the movie was constructed. Morris controversially decided to fill his film with re-enactment footage that changes throughout to show the fragile nature of truth and memory that he explores in the piece. Thematically, it’s a clever choice. Technically, it’s exquisite. The re-enactments are beautifully constructed in a modern noir style, all perfectly backed by a thundering Philip Glass score. As a result, the film is as viscerally exciting and enthralling as any fictional thriller. It blurs the line between fiction and doc filmmaking in a way that might seem familiar now, but in 1988 revolutionized what the world thought a documentary could be.
The three movies debut on Blu-ray via Criterion in just as pleasing packages as you’d hope. Given that they were shot on 16mm in the 70s, Gates Of Heaven/Vernon, Florida don’t exactly offer pristine technical showcase transfers, but they still likely look better on Blu than they ever did during their meager theatrical distributions. The Thin Blue Line on the other hand looks absolutely amazing. Age and budget appropriate grain flows over every image, but depth, colour, and clarity pop off the screen like never before. Few documentaries are as visually accomplished as The Thin Blue Line and never has that been more apparent than on Criterion’s new disc.
The special feature sections on both discs are small (unless you count Vernon, Florda as a special feature on The Gates Of Heaven disc), but pack a punch. The Gates/Vernon disc includes the amusing 30-minute documentary of Werner Herzog eating his own shoe to celebrate the completion of Gates Of Heaven (even though Morris hilariously reveals that he has no memory of Herzog making that promise). There are also short interviews with Morris about both features with the director looking back fondly on the projects and sharing amusing insights (like getting beat up on his first trip to Vernon) that even longtime fans might not have heard. The Thin Blue Line features a remarkable 40-minute interview with Morris who delves into that production with vivid memories as if he just completed production (including how he feared for his life after uncovering the true identity of the murderer for the first time). Also included on that disc is a loving appreciation by director Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act Of Killing) and a nice archival clip from NBC featuring Morris and a recently-released-from prison Randall Dale Adams. Both discs are excellent and deserve a place on any cinephile’s shelf, even more so than most Criterion releases. Gates Of Heaven and The Thin Blue Line are genuine American masterpieces. Even if the ingenuity of both movies have faded over time, their strengths still transcend the bulk of the documentary medium. They are simply remarkable films, documentary or otherwise.