Errol Morris vs Small Town Eccentrics

I struggled a lot with questions of tone & intent in Errol Morris’s landmark documentary Gates of Heaven, our current Movie of the Month. In the film, Morris documents a small-town dispute over ownership of a pet cemetery with both an emotional & editorial remove, leaving a lot of room for interpretation in how he relates to his interviewees. Given the way the quaint subject is presented in Morris’s editing room choices, it’s often tempting to read an ironic humor in his fascination with his subjects (recalling more blatantly comedic works like Christopher Guest’s Best in Show in the process). The economic hardships detailed early in the film generate genuine empathy and the rich bastards who profit off it later in the narrative likely deserve to be mocked, but there’s still something uncomfortable about a young NYC intellectual invading small town communities to have a chuckle at the local yokels. Gates of Heaven never fully tips in the direction of outright meanness & big city elitism, but I can still detect those impulses lurking in its morally compromised DNA. You don’t need to look far into Morris’s other works from that late-70s era to justify that unease, either. The filmmaker abandoned a few much more blatantly exploitative false-start projects before he completed his critically lauded debut, the scraps of one even becoming its de facto sequel.

Errol Morris would eventually enjoy a successful, prolific career as a documentarian, but his early professional years were more or less defined by false starts. Werner Herzog literally ate his own shoe because he was incredulous that the Gates of Heaven project would ever be completed. It was a fairly safe bet that it wouldn’t, as it was Morris’s third attempt at making a film to date, with nothing substantial to show for it. His first abandoned project was a documentary on notorious serial killer Ed Gein. Morris took an edgy, provocative approach to the subject, interviewing Gein himself and making plans to dig up the killer’s mother’s gave to prove suspicions that her body had already been exhumed. When Herzog showed up ready to dig up the grave, Morris chickened out and the project was never completed. The same goes for Morris’s second attempt at documentary filmmaking, a project that was initially going to be titled Nub City. Foretelling Gates of Heaven’s humorous gawking at local yokels, Nub City was meant to be an investigative piece about the curiously high number of citizens of Vernon, FL who had amputated their own limbs to collect insurance money. It’s unclear if Nub City would have lived up to its exploitative title as a total “Getta load of this freak show!” endeavor or if it would have balanced that impulse with the same empathetic & economic concerns that complicated Gates of Heaven’s potential irony. What is clear is that the impoverished insurance scammers Morris hoped to document were not fond of the scrutiny. The filmmaker was beaten up by the Marine son of one of his potential subjects, received death threats, and smartly abandoned the project.

Unlike the Ed Gein project, an untitled narrative crime thriller screenplay, and a documentary about an unscrupulous court case expert witness nicknamed Dr. Death, Morris did not abandon the Nub City project entirely. He instead pivoted by using interview footage from other, non-insurance scamming locals to scrape together an eventual sequel to Gates of Heaven titled Vernon, Florida. As an art project, Vernon, Florida is more formally daring than the already context-light pet cemetery document of Gates of Heaven. It’s a film comprised entirely of leftover scraps, something you can feel in every second of tis meandering, non-sequitur interviews with local eccentrics. On the Florida pan handle (not too far east from here, despite my viewing of the film requiring subtitles) Vernon is portrayed to be a quaint town crowded with Southern Eccentrics. Without the David vs. Goliath capitalist narrative of Gates of Heaven or any kind of narrative direction at all, these subjects’ eccentricities themselves seemed to be the crux of what’s on display. Occasionally an old man will do something adorable like show off his pet tortoise, but the residents of Vernon are mostly shown as babbling kooks who can bore any open ear for eternity with go-nowhere stories about anything: turkey-hunting, buying a van, God, suicide, the word “therefore,” why we should bring back tar & feathering, etc. Without plot or music providing this empty pontification with any momentum, Vernon, Florida is stubbornly directionless. At its best it feels like the avant-garde indulgences of Werner Herzog or Harmony Korine; at its worst it feels like the art world ancestor to The Jerry Springer Show. Either way, it confirms my suspicions that in his youth Morris approached his small-town subjects with an unhealthy dose of ironic detachment.

Morris matured greatly by the time he completed his next documentary in 1988, the pioneering true crime pic Thin Blue Line. Meanwhile, interview clips from Vernon, Florida have been consistently used to mock poor Southerners (again, sometimes with merit), most recently as commercial bumps on the Adult Swim comedy show The Heart, She Holler. It’s a film that’s nowhere near as essential as Gates of Heaven, defiantly so, but it is one that helps illustrate that landmark work’s more unseemly impulses. At least the morbid fascination with this tone echoed in comparable, narrative works like Trash Humpers & Even Dwarfs Started Small didn’t risk exploitation of real-life, economically devastated people for the sake of artistic effect, a mistake many young provocateur documentarians make, including the greats.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the landmark pet cemetery documentary Gates of Heaven, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its resulting promotional-stunt Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, and last week’s comparison to the Christopher Guest comedy Best in Show.

-Brandon Ledet

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