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An Appreciation for Errol Morris

Errol Morris

It was a strange coincidence that when I was reevaluating Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, just a number of weeks after delving into The Thin Blue Line, that I caught wind of one of my favorite podcasts (WrongReel) dedicating half of an episode to Errol Morris. Rather than influence my own opinion, I proceeded with the write-ups and listened to the podcast afterward. Here is the cast in question, where they also talk about another film, The Seven Five that sounds up my alley.

It was an excellent episode, and just like I did with Salò (link), I am going to piggyback on their thoughts and add some of my own about his entire body of work.

First off, Morris is a master interviewer. This is particularly apparent in The Thin Blue Line and The Fog of War. Often in his documentaries (although not in his early ones), you can hear his voice in the background asking questions. He asks pointed, sharp, and sometimes difficult, penetrating questions. He basically put Robert McNamara on the spot to get him to admit to being wrong about his entire operation. One thing the WrongReel guys touched on was that Morris intentionally does not react to something a subject says. In that aspect, some of his subjects think he isn’t listening to them – quite the contrary. He just does not want to influence them one way or another, and by doing this, somehow they just talk aimlessly and in the process will reveal details they might not want be known. One example is a witness at one of the trials who basically incriminates herself. McNamara nearly does the same to himself, although he’s careful not to absolutely place blame on himself (he indicts the war machine).

The guys point out how Morris chose a couple of his subjects out of his own morbid curiosity. That hadn’t dawned on me before, but when you look at his filmography, it is absolutely and unequivocally true. Even Vernon, Florida, which is among his lighter and funnier documentaries, originated as a way of exploring people who blew up their own limbs as an insurance scam in “Nub City.” Those people wouldn’t talk to him without threatening or inflicting violence, so he talked to the town goofballs instead.

This morbid taste is more obvious with some topic choices, such as <emThe Thin Blue Line and Mr. Death. Other topics lean in a morbid direction. With the two politician films, he takes them down a path for them to revisit the atrocities committed during the war while they were in office. Even with A Brief History of Time, which is the least Morris-like documentary, he has to talk about the condition that put Stephen Hawking in a near vegetative state. Gates of Heaven is about people burying their pets. Errol Morris is without question into dark topics.

Philip Glass also plays a major part in the key works of Errol Morris — The Thin Blue Line, A Brief History of Time, and The Fog of War. It is difficult to imagine these films without Glass’ music. The documentary styles are a perfect marriage, and I have to give the editors credit for coupling these two styles for maximum affect. Glass also scores Godfrey Reggio’s The Quatsi Triogy and a number of other documentaries and fiction films, but at least for me, it is the Errol Morris documentaries where his music has the most presence.

Since I’ve seen just about all of them, here are my personal top five Errol Morris films.

5. Gates of Heaven

4. A Brief History of Time

3. Mr. Death

2. The Fog of War

1. The Thin Blue Line

Reenactment of the crime.

The top two are among my favorite documentaries of all time, so this was a close call.

I’ll end with a story. My father is a Vietnam veteran. If you’ve met many, you’ll know that they often don’t like to talk about their time in the war. My father and I have had some brief conversations about it over the years, but nothing substantial. My father also planted the seeds for my love of film. After being enamored by The Fog of War, I thought this might be a way of bonding with my father if we watched it together. I thought that maybe it would help him process some things, plus I know that he loves a good documentary.

My father watched it pensively. I could see him fidgeting as we watched. Afterward he conceded that it was well put together. When I asked if he liked it, he said it was okay. I pursued, and finally he said (without anger), “I just cannot believe the nerve of that asshole!” I learned later that the troops and protestors reviled McNamara back in the day, that he was the poster boy for what was wrong with the war. Even though I was decently educated about the war, I did not realize the venom towards this one figure. That was not a part of my generation. My father’s main reservation was that this was a mea culpa, only it was 30 years too late. His problems with the movie were the same as my praise, just from a completely different perspective. I respected my Dad’s opinion and have never brought the film or the war up again.

Fast forward a decade and I watch The Unknown Known, which is a similar format as the McNamara film only with Donald Rumsfeld as the subject talking about his time overseeing the Iraq war. Having lived through that debacle, I had a tough time taking anything Rummy said seriously. The fact that he was deliberately evasive and became semantic with the nature of the questions showed that he was the opposite of McNamara. This was no mea culpa, but more of a quagmire. It angered me more than anything because this was the same stuff the guy was doing in the White House. I respected the filmmaking, but I could not bring myself to “like” this film.

I found myself in a film discussion with someone who passionately loved the Rumsfeld doc. His argument was that this was the point. The circular logic that Rumsfeld expounded revealed his flaws as a human being, and that Morris was making light of that. That’s why he titled the movie The Unknown Known because, frankly, the phrase is illogical. This individual made a decent argument, but I was seeing none of it. Later I learned that my debate opponent was 20, so he was 10 during the high point of the war and in elementary school during its inception. He didn’t have the preconceived and impermeable perceptions of the individual. It dawned on me at that very moment that this kid was me ten years ago, and I was my father after seeing The Fog of War.

The way a message lands depends on the recipient.

Keep making movies, Errol.

Vernon, Florida, 1981, Errol Morris

Vernon Fl

I live in the southeast, so I’m used to southern culture. We have our share of “rednecks,” but aside from the accents and political leanings, much of the local flavor isn’t too different from any other medium-sized city. Because it is nearby, we visit Florida somewhat frequently as a getaway. It is often dubbed the “Redneck Riviera.” Sure, you get a lot of transplants, tourists, and there’s a large Latin American and Cuban population, but there are also plenty of homegrown locals. On every trip, we’ll encounter some weird local. Generally, the further south we go, it becomes less “redneck” and more multi-cultural.

The panhandle is a different breed entirely. I’ve only been there a handful of times, and it has more in common with Alabama and Mississippi than Tampa and Miami. Vernon, Florida, is just like any southern town out in the middle of nowhere. Having been to many of those, I can testify that there are some unique, backwoods characters, and many of them are not among the intellectual elite (although I do know some highly intelligent people living in small southern towns). Morris chose Vernon by accident, but many of the same type of people could be found in almost any southern town of the same size.

vernon florida

While Gates of Heaven had a narrative arc, it also had quirky and unique characters with stories to tell. Vernon, Florida sheds the narrative and focuses instead on the colorful characters in this small Florida panhandle town. To call the characters quirky is an understatement. They are sheltered, naïve, and passionate about their worldview, but it is far from metropolitan. The subjects that Morris interviews are far from the most intelligent bunch, and Morris seems to go out of his way to portray their ignorance. While at times these characters are humorous, at others their simple nuggets of wisdom are endearing.

Brain bowl guy.

Brain bowl guy.

“You ever seen a man’s brains?” asks one of the residents, randomly, and then goes into how they are contained within four bowls around the circumference of the skull (aside from “bowls,” these are my words, not his). “You are not a one track mind. You are a four track mind,” he says, and then he goes on to explain the thesis. Like many of the interviews, at first the reaction is ‘WTF?’ and as the diatribe continues, it keeps on getting more absurd. That’s the essence of Vernon, Florida. It is a lot of people saying strange, kooky, and dumb things.

Ray Cotton, the "therefore" preacher.

Ray Cotton, the “therefore” preacher.

Even Ray Cotton, the preacher, is not immune to being taken to task. He is developed as a nice, honest guy, who decided to spread the word of the Lord for less money rather than take up a more lucrative profession. However, when he preaches, he is yet another source of humor. He begins by talking about the word “therefore,” and how Paul uses it quite a bit. He had to look up the definition of the word in Webster’s dictionary, and finds that it is a conjunction. He then has to look up “conjunction,” and that leads to him looking up other words. He does come around to a point, but he takes an extensive journey through the world of Webster in order to get there.

Henry Shipes, the Turkey Shooter guy.

Henry Shipes, the Turkey Shooter guy.

Henry's friends.

Henry’s friends.

One of my criticisms, which is more of a minor quibble, is that Morris spends too much time with turkey hunter Henry Shipes and his friends. Henry has his quirks, such as when he gives a contradictory statement about whether to go after turkeys when there’s a hen present. He also has some more cinematic moments, such as when they go out on the boat to try to find a nest of turkeys. Compared to the remaining characters, he is the least interesting, and he does not say much for the town other than the fact that people hunt wild turkeys.

The Wiggler Guy.

The Wiggler Guy.

There are plenty of other motley characters and they all share their own bit of warped wisdom. One of the most memorable quotes for me was a guy talking about Wigglers, who says, “I never studied no books about these wigglers. What I know ‘bout ‘em is just self experience. Uh, they’ve got books on ‘em. Them books is wrong.” There’s also a police officer, who frankly seems bored. There’s a guy who is boggled by the concept of jewelry, and another who pontificates on random things happening.

Errol Morris is, of course, an intelligent and well-educated individual. While he can be seen as exploiting these people for their simplicity, the joke is occasionally on him. In one scene, he interviews a couple about how they brought some sand back from vacation and put it in a jar. Over the years, the sand subsequently grew. “In a couple of years that jar will be full,” the man says. What? Sand doesn’t grow, so this initially looks to be another example of their Vernon stupidity. Morris found out later that there are certain types of sand that can absorb moisture and will gain in size, especially when moved to a different climate. There is another scene where a man calls a turtle a “gopher,” and initially we again think he is confused or just stupid. What’s not mentioned is that there is such a thing as a Gopher Tortoise. In his defense, Morris possibly knew about the tortoise and this may have just been a random comment that people picked up on. Despite the gopher comment, the gentleman’s speech about turtles is quite entertaining.

While it is enjoyable to meet these characters and hear their words of wisdom, as I noted, there is not a point of narrative. The film meanders and is basically a portrait of a small town with quaint, folksy people, who seem foreign to the art-house cinephiles who would see an Errol Morris documentary. It is an enjoyable way to spend an hour, but it does not compare with some of his best work.

Film Rating: 5.5/10

Supplements

Errol Morris: Interview from 2014.

Morris talks about the genesis of this project. At first he intended to film a documentary called “Nub City.” This was an area in Florida where they had the highest rate of insurance fraud, most of which were from people who blew off an arm or a leg in order to collect the insurance money – hence the “Nub” part of the nickname.

He was warned that “Nub City” at night because it was too dangerous. At first Morris found it not too dangerous, but fabulously weird. He interviewed some insurance fraudsters and for the first time in his life, he got beat up. In hindsight, “it was sort of unpleasant,” he says.

The real “Nub City” is Vernon, FL. Rather than risk life and limb, he instead just started talking to the locals and he found the characters engaging. This explains why the film lacks a subject, thesis or narrative. As Morris puts it: “I just love these guys. So I made this movie.”


This is the second film in the disc with Gates of Heaven, so the rating below is for both discs combined. Gates of Heaven is both the better film and has the better extras, especially because of the Les Blank documentary. While Vernon, Florida does not measure up, it is basically a second movie for the same price.

Criterion Rating: 8/10

Gates of Heaven, 1978, Errol Morris

Gates of Heaven

Early on in Gates of Heaven, one of the interview subjects gives a quote that summarizes much of the film: “The love that people have for their pets is tremendous, something that is very, very difficult to explain.” As a pet owner for most of my life, I identify with this statement. When each pet has passed, it has been a difficult period –- almost to the level of losing a family member. For some people, losing a pet is worse than losing a family member.

At a recent film festival, we saw a short film about Cherry Pop, a Fort Lauderdale show cat with wealthy owners that lived during the 1980s. Her “parents” would buy her jewels, gave her a Rolls Royce, and spoiled her to high heaven. It was estimated that they spent $1 million on this cat. It was a neat little film with archived video footage from home movies, and I can think of fewer examples of someone loving a pet as much as this family. It was ridiculous that they spent all that money, but the feeling in their hearts was genuine. When they lost Cherry Pop, they were devastated.

The opposite is also true. There are many who see animals as packages of flesh with no real purpose. Since they are not human beings, they do not deserve to be memorialized or even treated humanely. These are the types who would raise no objection about rendering a deceased pet’s remains into a raw material.

Gates of Heaven is about this dichotomy. It explores the levels of which people love and care for their pets, in this world or the next, and those who think of them as garbage that needs to be processed somewhere. It is also about more than just the pets, but how people can turn these emotional connections into business enterprises, and whether they do so out of compassion or in order to line their own pockets.

The film begins with Floyd (or “Mac” as he goes by) talking about losing his Collie to an accident. Devastated, he wanted to find a piece of land to bury the remains of his loved one. When he found the land, he had a dream and eventually it led to the creation of a pet cemetery.

"Mac"

“Mac”

Mac is a man of compassion and his business interest is more about his love and respect for the deceased animals and the families who mourn them. He lambasts the rendering companies who have no respect for the deceased. There is another interviewee who talks about people being upset when a zoo animal’s remains went to rendering company. He admits that they lied and said that they buried them.

Mac realizes that there are more economic ways to maintain a pet cemetery, but he claims that his is “not a fast buck business.” He could have efficiently dumped a number of animals into the same burial plot and that would have likely brought him more profits, but it went against his moral code. Unfortunately, because he focused too little on the business aspect, he lost his shirt and his buried pets were forcefully evicted from the cemetery.

Pet relocation process.

Pet relocation process.

Mac when talking about the failings of his business and any culpability: “The only thing I’m guilty of is compassion. And that’s all.”

These pets were transferred to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. Contrary to Mac’s endeavor, Bubbling Well is a successful pet cemetery because it is built upon solid business practices.

Bubbling Well

Bubbling Well

Bubbling Wells Memorial Service.

Bubbling Well Memorial Service.


While the father and two suns that run Bubbling Well see it more as a business, does that mean it is exploitative? That is up to the viewer’s interpretation. There is one scene where a couple are putting to rest their loved dog Caesar. They are memorializing him with the patriarch of the business, Cal Harberts. He asks to see a picture of Caesar and compliments the dog for having such a gorgeous coat. He then talks about what great pets mixed breeds make. His tone is respectful and it comforts the mourning couple, but you have to wonder whether it is genuine. It could be superficial and a variation of what he says to every client, or he could have been playing to the cameras. Mac would share similar words, but we can imagine that he may emotionally empathize more with his clients.

Phil Harberts

Phil Harberts

Harberts leaves the operating of the business to his two kids, Phil and Dan. Dan dresses in 1970s, post-hippie fashion, and aspires to be a rock star. He admits that he partied during college, yet feels that he learned things and gives an odd explanation as to why, which shows that he basically did not learn. His brother Phil is his opposite. He has experience in the insurance industry and has good business sense. He compliments himself on his great memory and how it is necessary for the business that he uses it to keep up with all his veterinarian contacts. When he speaks, he is all either business or affirmation. He wants to even expand the business, and when talking about his father’s success, “he read the same textbooks as me.”

Phil is creative. He builds a “Garden of Honor,” which is a resting place for service dogs, whether they are police or seeing eye dogs, and they are buried for no price. Other owners can bury their pets in the same section, but at a higher price because of the prestigious land.

Bubbling Well still exists today. Here is a recent article the facility and its history.

Dan's priority - music over Bubbling Wells.

Dan’s priority – music over Bubbling Wells.

Dan is neither Phil, Cal or Mac, and his appearance towards the end gives this documentary an extra quirk (although it has plenty, mostly from interviews of pet owners). He really is a slacker. We see him in his apartment listening to psychedelic music, presumably his own. He writes songs and longs to have them heard, but realizes that as time passes, that dream is fading.

Lady and dog singing,

Lady and dog singing,

The interviews with pet owners and snapshots of their interactions, like the memorable singing owner and dog, offer little to the narrative, but they are what gives the documentary its flavor. They recall the statement I began this write-up with, that people inexplicably love their pets. One lady says that she wants her pet buried because she believes they will be together again. In a sentiment that Mac would agree with, Mrs. Harberts says that the “at the Gates of Heaven, an all compassionate God is not going to say ‘Well, you’re walking in on two legs, you can go in. You’re walking in on four legs, we can’t take you.”

Film Rating: 7/10

Supplements

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, 1980, Les Blank

werner herzog eats his shoe

The bet was that Morris would not be able to complete Gates of Heaven or Werner Herzog would eat his shoe. This documentary is Herzog living up to his end of the bargain, with help from friends such as culinary goddess, Alice Waters, and of course the documentarian, Les Blank.

The documentary is in typical Les Blank style. It begins with upbeat music, photography that focuses on a weird object (Herzog’s walking shoe), and of course food.

After preparing the shoe Cajun style, and boiling it for 5 hours, he proclaims the shoe edible. Herzog says that he has survived Kentucky Fried Chicken so he can handle this. Does he eat the shoe? Sort of. They cleverly intercut the famous Chaplin shoe-eating scene from The Gold Rush. He does eat the shoe, but not the sole, comparing it to the bones of a chicken.

Back to the topic of this post. Herzog is proud of Morris for making the film. While eating the shoe is foolish, he is proud that it was a motivator.

Film Rating: 8/10


Herzog at Telluride: “You can make films with your guts alone.” This is a very short clip where he complements Gates of Heaven as a very fine film that was made with no money and only guts.


Errol Morris: October, 2014 interview.

Just like with The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris proves to be an excellent interview subject.

He tells a funny story about how Douglas Sirk, a director that he respected tremendously, walked out of his movie. “This isn’t a movie. This is a slideshow.” And then he said, “There’s a danger that this film could be perceived as ironic.” What?

Morris doesn’t remember Herzog saying he would eat his shoe, and minimized the influence of that “bet.” He claims he was more inspired by Herzog’s films.

Wim Wenders saw a very rough cut, one that they were worried wouldn’t fit into the projector. He said it was a masterpiece. That was the first positive review. It was very encouraging of course. Siskel and Ebert followed suit and loved it. They were known to fight with each other, but in the case of Morris’ film, they fought about how good it was. They reviewed it three times and put it on best of year list. “Thank you, Roger. Thank you, Gene.”


This is a two-film disc with Vernon, FL, which will be discussed next.