Ebertfest (Part II): The Movies

Gates of Heaven

In his Ebertfest blog, Patrick Franklin gets worked up about the audience reaction to Errol Morris’ first movie:

“I liked Gates of Heaven a lot, which I saw for the first time this afternoon, but I was completely angered by the experience. The entire audience seemed to be laughing hysterically for the whole movie. I felt like I was watching a mockumentary. The worst part was that I didn’t know who to blame — the audience, myself, Errol Morris, or Christopher Guest.”

(To that I’d add that I wonder if the audience’s reaction affects what films Roger Ebert brings in for this festival. If audiences react inappropriately to some movies, would Ebert be so embarrassed that he wouldn’t subject a director or actor to it?)

I hadn’t considered blaming Christopher Guest for the audience response to Gates of Heaven, but it makes a certain amount of sense. Audiences have learned to react with laughter to Guest’s output, starting with his Nigel Tufnel role in Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap and continuing through the three features he’s directed.

But that’s not Guest’s fault. His movies, like most of Morris’, are a deadpan mix of humor and affection, and his intentions aren’t clear from moment to moment. The audience isn’t quite sure what to make of a line or scene; they’re uncomfortable. So they laugh, because it’s the safest reaction.

And so it is with Gates of Heaven, a little gem whose mystery is only rivaled by Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control in the Morris oeuvre. Ebert called it “bottomless” and has it in his list of the ten best movies ever made; he told the Ebertfest audience that it strikes him differently each time he watches it. As Franklin noted, the crowd on April 24 found it uproariously funny.

I agree with Ebert’s “bottomless” assessment, with the disclaimer that it’s as much a function of the movie’s open-ended nature as its depth. Gates of Heaven has no clearly articulated subject or thesis, and it’s so wide-ranging, with so little guidance from Morris, that its effect and meaning will depend a lot on who watches it and where they are in life.

It starts straightforwardly enough, focusing on a California pet cemetery operated by a man named Floyd McClure. He started the cemetery based on a childhood experience, and he runs it out of human need rather than any profit motive — a recipe for disaster, of course. McClure’s stories and interviews with his business partners are intercut with perspectives from his “competition” — the man who runs a rendering facility and finds it endlessly amusing how repulsed people are by the very idea of a “glue factory.”

McClure’s cemetery goes out of business, and the animal bodies need to be moved, and then the movie goes completely off-track. There’s an interlude in which a woman gets her dog to “sing,” and it’s funny because Morris just lets it go on and on and touching because it underscores the bond between pet and owner. Then there’s an extended interview with a woman named Florence Rasmussen, and here it becomes clear that pet cemeteries are simply the hook of Gates of Heaven, not its subject.

Rasmussen makes only a passing reference to pet cemeteries, and otherwise her monologue is a series of jarring and instantly self-evident contradictions. She says that she gave her son a car, and within a few breaths she’s saying that she gave him part of the money for it. She relates that he’s never had kids, and then states that, well, he has one. You watch her and wonder, “Who the hell is this woman?!”

Morris explained after the film that he has a two-minute rule: Let someone talk uninterrupted for two minutes, and that person will show you how crazy he or she is. This isn’t as misanthropic as it might seem; Morris also said that it’s life that makes each of us a little bit nuts. When asked about whether he was making fun of his subjects, Morris — in the coyly deliberate way of an expert storyteller — said that yes, he was, but that mocking isn’t necessarily synonymous with condescension.

What’s plain in Morris’ movies is that he’s not looking down his nose at the people he interviews. He might be having a laugh at their expense, and he certainly doesn’t have sympathy for them, but he’s interested in them as human beings.

Rasmussen only has a few minutes in Morris’ spotlight, but her bit is crucial. She expands the scope of the film, and consequently gives Morris full freedom to explore the Harbarts family, which runs another pet cemetery, the one that accepted the bodies from McClure’s.

This clan isn’t nearly as odd as Rasmussen or McClure, but it’s still fascinating. The elder son speaks as if he’s memorized every trendy business self-help book he can get his hands on, yet he’s left cutting the grass at the cemetery. The younger Harbarts is a classic ’70s slacker — he lives to play anthemic rock guitar to an empty valley — but he’s got a good head on his shoulders and is endearingly earnest, explaining even simple concepts multiple times to make sure they’re fully understood and retained.

But what does it all mean? Morris doesn’t offer many clues. Gates of Heaven ends up highly labor-intensive, because the filmmaker doesn’t tell the audience what to think or feel; he doesn’t even give any music cues or identify the subjects with names, titles, or relationships, leaving that work to the audience.

This stand-offish approach — Morris said he was trying to break every rule of documentary filmmaking — is a bit much, the only indication that the movie was made by a novice with some maturing to do. But Gates of Heaven is a warm, rich, and understated work that’s a beautiful balance to the high stylization of Morris’ later work.

(Morris said that Gates of Heaven will probably be released on DVD in 2004. It has long been out-of-print on video.)

People I Know

People I Know got the classic Miramax treatment: The studio bought it at Sundance, released in two theaters in Siberia, and then dumped it. (It debuts on DVD in July.) It deserved better than that, but it’s still not very good.

Al Pacino plays a past-his-prime-but-still-powerful New York publicist who’s so intensely devoted to his craft that a murder he witnesses barely registers. (The drugs didn’t help in that regard.) He’s trying to put together a benefit event, and the task is so consuming that nothing else phases him.

The character, based on publicist Bobby Zarem (who attended Ebertfest), is a gem, and Pacino gives a full, lived-in performance, even though his Georgia accent seems so incongruous with the iconic Pacino that it feels wrong. But the thriller elements simply don’t work, and what’s most disheartening is that they’re not even necessary; the movie would have been really good as a tight little story about the publicist and his benefit.

The trouble is that the murder story is so peripheral that it’s under-developed, a bit silly, and seriously unlikely; it clashes with the detailed realism of the publicist’s everyday life. Its function is pretty much to get Pacino’s character stabbed, an injury he of course doesn’t even notice. (Why not just a random act of violence?)

Director Daniel Algrant and writer Jon Robin Baitz probably included the subplot as a way to make the movie more marketable. The irony, of course, is that Miramax essentially bailed on People I Know. So the filmmakers were left with a movie that nobody saw and that was less successful in terms of quality than it could (or should) have been.

Invincible

For reasons I don’t fully understand, Werner Herzog and I just don’t get along. Like the work of Martin Scorsese, Herzog’s movies mostly strike me wrong; I find that I admire more than like them, and admiration is pretty much a given for a man who willingly worked repeatedly with Klaus Kinski and pulled a boat over a mountain in 1982’s Fitzcarraldo.

Invincible generated the typical reaction to Herzog in me. There are many interesting things going on in the movie, but it felt flabby and uncertain where it was going. I liked the idea of the movie far more than its execution.

It’s the story of Zishe, a Jewish strongman in the 1930s who becomes a favorite entertainer of the Nazis. He works for a man named Hanussen (Tim Roth), who puts on a show that’s a combination of circus act and pandering propaganda. Zishe is dressed up to look more Aryan, but he boldly takes off his blond wig and announces his heritage to the assembled Nazis. Hanussen brilliantly exploits this, too.

Fundamentally, the movie is exploring whether it is better to embrace or renounce one’s identity, and the core narrative worked well for me. But it takes too long to get there, and the prolonged coda adds little beyond a badly done special effect whose meaning is utterly lost on me.

Ebert said the movie operates for him as a parable, and if the bookends featuring Zishe’s family were removed, I might agree. The central story of Invincible is strong, simple, and clean, a boldly drawn fantasy that illustrates the moral dilemma of Jews in the years leading up to World War II. But the beginning and ending of the movie add too much depth and shading to the narrative, for no apparent purpose, and they ultimately confuse it.

Ebertfest (Part I): The Experience

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