Gates of Heaven/ Vernon, Florida: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

March 17, 2015 7 Min Read

Review by: Jake Keet

Plot: What’s it about?

These two films are pretty different from each other, so I think it will make more sense to review each one individually.

Gates Of Heaven is easily the better of the two films presented in this release. The film, to be quite honest, is a bit of a knockout. I was honestly shocked at how much I enjoyed it. I love documentaries in general, but I typically find that they are movies I enjoy watching once or twice. Most documentaries seem to give you some information, you are thankful to have it, and life goes on. This film struck me as something different. It was similar to the way that I enjoyed Herzog’s Grizzly Man. That film is one of my favorites of all time, and I have watched it more times than would sound rational. Whereas, I watch Grizzly Man and can’t help but consider it a dark comedy, I was amazed at how much this film tugged on my heartstrings. I am not a pet owner. I have a child. For the time being, that is enough. Don’t get me wrong, I like animals. I just don’t own any currently. That is why it was so much more impressive that I found myself feeling moved.

Gates of Heaven is a small idea film. The idea was to film pet cemetery owners in California following a drastic decision for animals of one cemetery to be moved to a cemetery in a different city so that the land could be turned into commercial property. What Errol Morris ended up filming was the American success and failure story. I was moved completely within thirty minutes of starting the film as I watched a man explain how much he loved animals and how he had lost everything in the desecration of his pet cemetery. It moved me more than almost anything I have watched in the last year. The rest of the film was interesting because it dealt with the dynamics of a pet cemetery that happened to be a family business. I own a family business, so I particularly enjoyed this. It leads to some comedic elements, and overall was very interesting. I personally thought that this documentary was fantastic.I look forward to watching it again!

Vernon, Florida is a documentary about the more eccentric residents of a small town in the Florida panhandle. The movie shows the lives of an eccentric old man who seems to be the town philosopher, an old man who cages possums and other animals for financial gain, a turkey hunter, and a couple other smaller roles. The movie itself to me seemed a bit underwhelming. That isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it. I did enjoy it, but considering how amazing Gates of Heaven was, this is definitely a disappointment. The film didn’t seem focused enough for me. Whereas other Errol Morris films I have seen (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line,)seem to have a very specific goal, this film lacked that. He seemed to just be making a film from a bunch of footage with no real purpose. I will definitely watch it again someday to see if I missed something and was too hard on it. I still enjoyed it, but it is a minor film from a major director.

Video: How’s it look?

These movies were made on very thin budget. By thin, I mean, nonexistent. They still have a realm of beauty to them, but honestly they don’t look any better than the typical special features on a Criterion disk look. That said, Vernon, Florida looks a little better than Gates of Heaven. Luckily, grain is persistent and film like. Detailing is quite good for the most part, even though everything seems like it was shot without the highest grade film. Considering the budgetary constraints of these films, I think Criterion did a fantastic job of restoring them. There is nothing to complain about. These films were never beautiful, and this is the best that they will ever look.

Audio: How’s it sound?

There are no problems with these tracks, and there is nothing to write home about. Dynamically, these tracks have almost nothing to them but people being interviewed in monaural, so your LFE will not take a very large hit. The good news is that Criterion obviously spent some serious time removing hiss from these features. Overall, they did a fantastic job of restoring underwhelming audio.

Supplements: What are the extras?

  • Two new interviews with Morris (1080p) – Both of these are fantastic. I recommend watching him expound on these films, as it only made the films even better. Well worth your time. I just wish that these had been a bit longer.
  • Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980),(1080p)- a twenty-minute film by Les Blank- I enjoyed this feature immensely. Herzog is fascinating to me. Grizzly Man and Burden of Dreams are my two favorite documentaries of all time, so I reveled in this feature. Well worth watching and a great supplement.
  • Footage of Herzog professing his admiration for Gates of Heaven at the 1980 Telluride Film Festival – This is only a minute long. Hardly worth listing as a special feature, but I enjoyed it.
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Eric Hynes

The Bottom Line

Gates of Heaven is incredible. Vernon, Florida is decent. For the value offer they are presenting, along with a documentary where Werner Herzog eats a shoe, I would definitely recommend the blind buy. If you think about it, you are getting three documentaries for the price of one, and one of those three is truly excellent. I will gladly hold on to this disk.

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