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The Errol Morris Collection

Gates of Heaven

Vernon, Florida

Thin Blue Line

The Errol Morris Collection

Director:Errol Morris

By Lee Gardner | Posted 8/24/2005

THE MOVIES: Inside this slipcase lies the Rosetta Stone of the contemporary documentary boom. Not that Errol Morris is ancient history (see 2003’s Oscar-winning The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara), but the three feature-length docs collected herein (also available separately) pioneered the heightened style and (non)narrative freedoms that modern doc-sters take for granted, while establishing Morris in the front ranks of true-story filmmakers. In fact, two of the trio number among the most compelling movies of any kind ever made.

Gates of Heaven (1980) introduced Morris’ basic toolbox: unusually intimate talking-head interviews, inventive use of graphics (newspaper headlines, maps, etc.), no narration, and camera work that’s more cinematic than journalistic. Yet these tactics fail to fully explain the daffy poignancy and existential depths Morris conjures up as he spends time with the proprietors of two California pet cemeteries. There are hilarious scenes involving nutty pet owners, a smarmy rendering-plant operator, and a random bitching grandma, to be sure, but the director digs deeper than mere kitsch. As his camera rolls, his unlikely subjects wind up musing about nothing less than dreams realized and deferred, American and otherwise.

Morris trotted out similar tactics for Vernon, Florida (1981) with less transcendent results. The turkey hunters and geezers of a small panhandle town come off as, well, colorful, but Morris seems more inclined to take them at face value as eccentric amusement. The resulting lack of depth makes it harder to sustain interest in his meandering observation, despite some wry laughs.

Morris embraced narrative in a big way for The Thin Blue Line (1988), which makes a convincing argument that authorities jailed and convicted the wrong man for the murder of a Dallas police officer in 1976. It was so convincing, in fact, that Randall Adams was exonerated and released less than a year after the movie debuted. Nonfiction crime-and-punishment procedurals are now a nightly network-TV staple, but Morris invented the genre here, and no one has ever bettered his take. Using stylized re-creations to dramatize the shooting and conflicting accounts of what happened, the director tells a jaw-dropper of a story, driven along by an elegant but urgent Philip Glass score. Most importantly, Morris’ trademark interviews help capture the inner truths behind the larger events: Adams’ clarity and bitter, barely contained outrage; the obtuse confidence of Dallas cops and prosecutors unaccustomed to being wrong; the well-meaning haplessness of the defense team; the inherent shiftiness of some 11th-hour witnesses; and the blithe dissemblings of baby-faced David Harris, the man who should have been serving Adams’ time.

THE DISCS: Looking for special features crammed with revealing new details? SOL—the extras menus offer nothing but trailers for other MGM products and one episode of Morris’ short-lived doc TV series First Person (conveniently now available as a box set of DVDs as well). It’s great to have these seminal movies on disc, but the bare-minimum treatment does them a dishonor.

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