Gates of Vernon, Florida: Two HD Upgrades by Criterion (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

Errol Morris does great audio commentaries, and some of his earlier films especially benefit from a little explanation and knowledge of their back story (especially Vernon, Florida). So it was always a shame that his older films only had barebones DVD releases. That's why I was so excited when Criterion recently began reissuing his classic documentaries as special edition blu-rays. First they tackled A Brief History of Time, and then they simultaneously released all three films from MGM's Errol Morris DVD Collection. I've already taken a look at The Thin Blue Line, and today I'm going to wrap that up with Morris' first two films: Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida, packaged together on Criterion's Two Films By Errol Morris blu-ray.
Gates of Heaven is just one of those perfectly absorbing documentaries where everything great all just happens to come out on camera. It's alternately funny, sad, relatable and fascinating, peeking into the otherwise unexamined world of pet cemeteries. Dating all the way back to 1978, it's also a become a bit of a period piece; but of course what's so effective about the film is how the humanity never changes. There's the two brothers who run one of the cemeteries with their father: one a frustrated drop-out musician who takes his giant speakers out to echo his jam sessions throughout the valley, the other a motivated go-getter who conducts his interview surrounded by all his sports trophies. People come to talk about life, death and the loss of their little loved ones, we witness the struggles of a small "mom and pop" pet cemetery versus bigger business, and we even have an eye-opening chat with the head of a rendering plant. It's just one of those movies you wish would never end.
Vernon, Florida is an even stranger film. I didn't know it when I first saw it decades ago, but it's essentially what came out of a film that couldn't be filmed. Morris originally went down South to investigate one of the country's biggest cases of insurance fraud. But when no one would talk about it, we wound up instead with a portrait of an eccentric little dot on the map. There's barely any structure as we encounter one local, then another, then cut back to the first. We hear their hunting stories, meet their animals, and ultimately sink into their personal philosophies of death, nature and the journey to find meaning in their lives. Sure, it feels a bit culled together from loose ends, but that almost makes it even more engrossing: the strange, organic film that grew on the outer fringes of a more traditional movie.
MGM 2005 DVD on top; Criterion 2015 blu-ray below.
MGM's 2005 DVD sort of said, "hey, what do you want for an old, low budget full frame documentary?" It was alright if you just wanted to see the film, no real flaws or issues. But Criterion, of course, gives it much better treatment with their 2015 blu. They've given it a new 2k scan, supervised by Errol Morris, from a 35mm color reversal internegative. It's still 1.33:1, because that's how the film was shot and meant to be shown; but they've given it back its natural, filmic look, compared to MGM's softer videotape-like image. Colors don't bleed like they do on the DVD, and the natural grain tells us we're seeing all the detail there is to be seen. The booklet with this blu talks about the "thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker" they manually removed, but as you can see in the second set of shots (top left corner), they missed a couple conspicuous ones that weren't even on the MGM disc. There's still some flickering in certain scenes, too. Some of the color timing decisions might be a bit questionable, too (what color is that guy's shirt in the first set of shots, really?). But these are minor instances within a rewarding restoration that happily replaces the old fuzzy transfer.
MGM 2005 DVD on top; Criterion 2015 blu-ray below.
Vernon, Florida shows an even bolder, more distinct improvement. Part of that is because MGM didn't even bother to encode the widescreen (1.66:1) film anamorphically - yuck! That's pretty bad in 2005. As you can see, it floats in a sea of negative space on the DVD, whereas Criterion preserves the 1.66 framing by pillar-boxing their image. You can also see they've adjust want's in the frame a bit, too; including more image on the bottom and both sides, but losing some a long the top. Again, Morris supervised these, so I'll just assume that's more correct.

So anyway, the other aspect of the improvement is that Vernon just seems to have been shot with a naturally stronger image (better camera?), resulting in a sharper, clearer picture when bumped up with another 2k scan. There just seems to be more detail to restore, making everything look even better. And like Gates of Heaven, the MGM DVD has a sort of VHS quality to its colors. Look at the American flag on the officer's shoulder or the bars on his back window in the second set of shots. There's all this green and purple discoloration popping up all over the place that thankfully has been eradicated in Criterion's much more naturalistic blu. Even at first glance, if you don't even bother to view these screenshots full size, the Criterion grabs just scream higher quality.

MGM's mono audio on both discs was always clear and fine, but Criterion has given both film's mono tracks a nice little HD boost. Both MGM's DVDs and Criterion has optional English SDH subtitles, with MGM also offering French and Spanish subs.
Criterion really comes through again in the extras. MGM had nothin'. Just some bonus trailers, not even the trailers for the films themselves. And while Criterion's blu isn't loaded with a ton of stuff, what it has is great and may be reason enough for people to double-dip, even if they're not the type to care much about video quality. Primarily, each film features a 15-20 minute on-camera interview with Morris, who tells you everything you wanted to know, and some fun anecdotes you didn't know you wanted to know, about each film. These are great and just what the old DVDs are lacking.

They've also included Les Blanc's short film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. It's been included as an extra several Herzog films already, but it really belongs with Gates, since the story is that Herzog told Morris if he ever finished his first film (which was Gates), he'd eat his shoe. And this is him eating that shoe in honor of Gates of Heaven.

And finally, there's a very brief (like 1 minute long) clip of Herzog at a film festival saying a few words about Gates. Just a very minor, extra little thing, but hey, the more the merrier. Criterion's blu also has a nice, fold-out booklet with a very long essay by New York reporter Eric Hynes.
So this is a very welcome pair of upgrades, or just a great place to start for someone stepping into the world of Errol Morris. And frankly, at least in terms of extras, it's what MGM should've given us in the first place. Now, hopefully 2016 will give us Criterion editions of Mr. Death and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control and we can really feel caught up in the home video filmography of Errol Morris.

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