FILM REVIEW: The Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven DVD
Gates of Heaven DVD
FILM REVIEW

Film: The Gates of Heaven
Filmmaker: Errol Morris
Year: 1978
Doc and a Drink review by:
Katy Jones

I am a bit of an Errol Morris fan. And I’d love to love this film. Unfortunately, not so much. In the world of documentary film directors, Errol Morris, is, you know, kind of a big deal. His interview style – shallow depth of field, stream of consciousness, direct eyeline with the camera is a style other filmmakers emulate and study. (why am I telling you about it, when you can watch an interview about it here.) Many a bad interview I have seen and thought “Where is Errol Morris when you need him?”

“Gates of Heaven” is a story about two pet cemeteries. One is a failure. One is a success. Morris interviews the kooky and occasionally delusional nutjobs that have chosen this profession as well as those poor mourning souls who chose to shell out cash to get their dead pets a permanent view. The film is really entirely interviews. No narration, no soundtrack, no particular story arc. It’s a series of interview selects juxtaposed against one another. On one side – the heart-warming failure who wanted so badly to honor dead collies that he failed to run a successful business – on the other a cold-hearted businessman who “reprocesses” dead animals into “usable products.”

In later films, this juxtaposing of people telling the same story from personally distinct viewpoints is a sophisticated story telling device creating narrative tension. (You should watch The Thin Blue Line, really, you should) Here it becomes kind of a narrative slop.

“Gates of Heaven” was Errol Morris’ first feature length documentary shot in the late 1970’s. And to be frank, it shows. Not just in the long sideburns, sunglasses as thick as bread, and pant-waists at the ribs. But also in the long rambly interview bites that are part of a young filmmaker just finding his style. Interview “bites” is the wrong word. It’s shot on film – a film roll is about 11 minutes long. Many of these people yammer on for about 10 minutes – or the length of time it would take for Morris to finish asking a question and the person to start talking. We’re really seeing whole independent monologues. While Errol Morris is famous for that style of interview that does encourage a subject to yammer on – this first film is overindulgent while he experiments with it. At least these interviews are well-conceived and aesthetically fascinating. There is plenty to look at in the background while you zone out in boredom from what these poor folks are actually saying.

As a student of documentary film, I think this was a valuable film to watch. This interview style was clearly conceived and executed – and the opportunity to watch Morris first work was fascinating. As a person recommending films to others, I’d have to say, skip it. If you want to see Errol Morris’ mature work and actually enjoy it, try watching The Thin Blue Line or The Fog of War. If you enjoy conceptual art – where the thinking of the method is more important than the result, watch this one.

2.5 of 5 cheers

Katy

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1st Doc and a Drink field trip – “Afghan Star” viewing Wednesday, 7:35 p.m.

Field trip – Going to see “Afghan Star” at the E Street Cinema on Wednesday, 7:35 p.m. If you’d like to go see it to, email me at docandadrink@gmail.com. Small group gathering. We’ll probably try to grab a beer afterward to chat about it. Cause that always makes it better.

More information about the film:

After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, pop Idol has come to Afghanistan. Millions are watching the TV series ‘Afghan Star’ and voting for their favorite singers by mobile phone. For many this is their first encounter with democracy. This timely film follows the dramatic stories of four contestants as they risk all to become the nation’s favorite singer. But will they attain the freedom they hope for in this vulnerable and traditional nation?

–Katy

African Diaspora Film Series at National Geographic includes documentary “Inside Buffalo” Saturday.

For those of us living in the DC area, National Geographic hosts the African Diaspora Film Series at the National Geographic complex this weekend. (At 17th & M Streets NW in DC, walk from either Farragut West or Farragut North metro stations)

The entire line up of the festival looks interesting. But I am particularly intrigued by this option:

Saturday, July 25 at 4pm
INSIDE BUFFALO
WASHINGTON D.C. PREMIERE
Inside Buffalo is a moving full-length documentary about the 92nd infantry division, an African American segregated unit, which served in Italy during WW II and came back home to segregation. By Fred Kudjo Kuwornu, Italy/USA, 2009, 59 mins, documentary, English and Italian with English subtitles. Q&A after the screening.

The filmmaker, Fred Kudjo Kurwornu, is an Afro-Italian who worked on an extra on a Spike Lee film shot in Italy and became inspired to be a filmmaker himself. This story is of personal interest to him, and I believe it is his first full-length documentary. I would love to attend, particularly for the Q&A afterward. Unfortunately, I am busy on Saturday. If anyone else is able to go – I’d love to hear more about it.

Katy

This week’s film to review…

I got two lovely shrink-wrapped Errol Morris films in the mail this week from Amazon. Trying to decide which one to use for next week’s review.

Vernon, Florida

-From Amazon.com:
For the inhabitants of this Southern town, there’s no place like home for the rest of us, there’s no place like Vernon, Florida! From the passionate turkey-hunter to the peculiar pet collector, each member of this motley crew has a story to tell. And in the masterful hands of Morris, their obsessions and eccentricities reveal the heart and soul of an unabashedly unique slice of the American pie!

Gates of Heaven

-From Amazon.com:

When financial hardship forces California’s Foothill Pet Cemetery to close its pearly gates, its dearly departed loved ones are relocated to the nearby Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. During this tense transition, filmmaker Morris meets a collection of eccentric cemetery operators and anguished animal-lovers and elicits a meditation on love and loneliness that’s “strange, chilling [and] appallingly funny” (Newsweek).

What do you think?

Katy

Doc of the Week: It’s all about the children. -bb

Children Underground (2001)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0264476/

My gut reaction to this documentary was strong.  I wanted to make this posting funny and witty and funny.  But, I can’t seem to do it.

This oscar nominated piece of work takes place in Romania.  The doc follows 5  – homeless – drug addicted – and uneducated children through 2 years of their brutally tough lives.

This traditionally shot documentary was extremely real and horribly upsetting.  The children are dirty, and vulgar.  I was amazed by the life moments that the filmmaker was able to capture.  I couldn’t help but notice that the female street dwelling children strongly resembled men.  They wore manly clothing and sported traditionally male haircuts.

Two things stick out to me as shocking to watch.

1. Children beating up other children.

2. Children all getting high on paint thinner AKA Aurolac.   (Want to learn more ? http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=aurolac )

I fell in love with one child who – despite being the “runt” of the group was determined to get an education and hold onto hope.  I so wanted to reach through the TV and help that particular child out.  His emotions were raw and he was wise beyond his 10 years.

In fact – due to the gritty nature of the content- I almost didn’t notice the slight continuity issues or seemly random switches between color and black and white photography.  Super critical Becky can’t help but wish for a little more character development in the first 40 minutes and a little less random montage of children on the street.  On the other hand – I do hold a special place in my heart for highly successful low budget docs.

For the doc’s honesty and ability to sober up a room I give it –

4 out of 5 Cheers

bb

Drink of the Week : Yuengling Traditional Lager _bb

ynglager documentary becky beamer Doc and a Drink www.beckybeamer.com

From “America’s Oldest Brewery” comes a seriously solid lager.  It is my “go to” beer of choice for kegs and 6 – packs for parties.  It’s light in color and a little light on  taste bud satisfaction.  But, I can throw a few of these bad boys down the hatch with out feeling bloated or full.  As if that wasn’t the best compliment I can give this beer I must say that Yuengling Lager is the best cheap beer around.  I was psyched when the brewery expanded its distribution beyond Pennsylvania.

A solid first beer and solid first review.

3 / 5  Cheers

Want to learn more ? http://www.yuengling.com/

bb

Pressure Cooker

Adding to the list of documentaries I’d like to see is Pressure Cooker.

Blurb from the official website

“Three seniors at Philadelphia’s Frankford High School find an unlikely champion in the kitchen of Wilma Stephenson. A legend in the school system, Mrs. Stephenson’s hilariously blunt boot-camp method of teaching Culinary Arts is validated by years of scholarship success. Against the backdrop of the row homes of working-class Philadelphia, she has helped countless students reach the top culinary schools in the country. And under her fierce direction, the usual distractions of high school are swept aside as Erica, Dudley and Fatoumata prepare to achieve beyond what anyone else expects from them.”

Reasons I would like to see it.

  1. A real-life story where something is at stake makes for inherently dramatic storytelling.
  2. Who doesn’t like a story telling us that the youth who will be running our country in the future are smart and capable?
  3. If 17 year olds can figure out how to cook a crepe, I gotta get inspired to make myself something other than Ramen.

Katy

Stay tuned!

The idea behind this site is simple.  The authors are Katy Jones and Becky Beamer – and we like documentaries.  We like talking about them, we like thinking about them, and we like talking to other people about them.  We are documentary filmmakers ourselves and longtime colleagues and while we are good friends, we rarely agree on much.  When we get together we inevitably talk about docs and working on docs and thoroughly enjoy disagreeing over a beer.  So we decided to blog about it.  Each week, one of us reviews a documentary and a drink – and each week, the other gets to comment on it.  And we invite you to comment as well.  Have you seen the film?  Do you want to?  Do you like/hate that beer we recommended?  Would you rather watch kung fu movies?  Do you have a recommendation?   We’ll delete anything profane, you know, cause it’s our blog like that, but otherwise, we like a good discussion!