Monday, March 17, 2014
The Mind of God
In 1978, Errol Morris released his first film, the documentary Gates of Heaven, about pet cemeteries in Napa Valley. Roger Ebert flipped his damn lid for the movie, and rightly so, and this reaction by the world's most popular film critic no doubt helped this strange, quietly breathtaking piece of work, which could very uncharitably, blindly, and myopically be described as a collection of talking head interviews, not actually fall of the edge of the Earth. I watched Gates of Heaven the other night, having not seen it in years, and among the many things that are striking about it is that even then, even before his major breakthrough film, The Thin Blue Line from 1988, and even before Morris's invention of the Interretron, a rough description of which would paint it as a camera attachment that allows Morris and his interview subject to view each other through separate camera lenses so that the speaker, Morris's subject, is talking to Morris but looking directly into the camera, even before all of this, his style was intact. In terms of the kinds of things held within the frame, Gates of Heaven really doesn't offer much; most of it really does consist of a speaker, or speakers, positioned in the middle of the frame. There are very few scenes that even call for cutting from one speaker to another (I can think of one such scene, a partial pet funeral that appears maybe halfway through the film), and with one or two notable exceptions I don't think the camera ever moves. Yet somehow out of this -- and certainly with the help of the unique subjects Morris seems to have an unerring skill for turning up -- and in just over 80 minutes, he created a sort of whispering philosophical epic about pets and pet cemeteries (literally -- Morris is too smart and too curious to use them only as a metaphor), the 1970s, naiveté, insensitivity, sensitivity, mortality, and, frankly, just loads more. Gates of Heaven is a very direct film in some ways -- the way in which it is so very much about the 1970s, and the burgeoning self-help culture, and how the children of the 60s and 70s were not the same kind of people as their parents, comes through very strongly. However as the film fades out, there is a lingering mystery to it, a sense that for all a given audience may have understood, and may have "gotten" about it, there are still depths that have been plumbed by Morris but perhaps not yet by us. And though I'm not here today to talk much more about Gates of Heaven, my own theory is that the source of this exhilarating uncertainty is, in fact, the pets. The silent montage of pet headstones near the end seems to change everything. Why? Because, maybe, it's a reminder that everything else you've now got on your mind because of this film started here.
A Brief History of Time, I should probably point out, has been the "lost" Morris film just about since it's release. For whatever reason, while everything else he's made, including more obscure movies like Vernon, Florida, has been more or less readily available, A Brief History of Time never got a standard DVD release, and in this interview with The Dissolve, Morris describes his quest to buy it back and then working with Criterion to have it added to their collection. Which is why we find ourselves here today, with the Criterion release happening tomorrow. Pardon my frank enthusiasm, but this is a wonderful thing in general, and a wonderfully put together release. An adaptation of Stephen Hawking's physics text/memoir (which I confess with much chagrin I've never read) of the same name, in A Brief History of Time Morris juxtaposes biographical material, usually delivered by Hawking's friends, family, and colleagues, with Hawking speaking about his work, his scientific philosophy, as well as the history of black hole theory, in the development of which Hawking played a key role.
Which will have to do for a plot summary. Visually, Morris gets away from the strict talking head aesthetic -- and it is an aesthetic, at least the way he does it -- that he'd already gotten away from anyway with The Thin Blue Line, and, in the way that earlier "true crime" film employed reenactments of the murder of a Dallas police officer to make a case for the innocence of the man who was convicted and against the man who turned out to actually be guilty, sort of "reenacts" classic metaphors (the chicken and the egg) and those original to Hawking (a shattering teacup) to illustrate quite abstract scientific concepts. And when photographing his interview subjects, with the indispensable assistance of cinematographer John Bailey, Morris goes deeply, and perhaps wryly, British. Almost everybody, except Hawking's family and one or two others, is just on the edge, and sometimes partly within, a kind of dim, leathery shadow -- no one is shown smoking a pipe but you can smell one anyway. Even if this is only a depiction of what the environments that housed scientific debates in Cambridge, Oxford, and elsewhere in the UK some fifty years ago might look like only in the current popular imagination, it nevertheless, as aesthetic choices that concern themselves with the past must do, makes it all feel immediate -- the exhilaration of discovery, even one that may later be disproved, somehow comes through the words of these pleasant but reserved men because something about the visuals puts us there. That, and of course the structure of the storytelling, the easily skilled storytelling by both Morris and his subjects, and the fact that this giant is sitting apart, shrunken and rendered immobile by his debilitating disease, his mind so breathtakingly dextrous that his distance from everyone else in the film puts him not just on another street, as one former classmate of Hawking says of him with great reverence, but another planet.