How Errol Morris Established the Bittersweet Comedy of American Life

We look back at Errol Morris' first three films as the documentary auteur’s foundation.

Gates of Heaven

Errol Morris is a documentarian with a keen eye for character, style, and comedy. His subjects vary, but the films are consistently humorous and poignant. Documentary is often associated with sober discourse, and yet the form can be so pleasurable even when communicating serious content. The way personalities and information are imparted matters, because empathy and learning shouldn’t be a chore.

Morris is a talented interviewer, able to draw revelatory magic from many kinds of people. But his timing is more remarkable, and you can see it clearly even in his first three features. Gates of Heaven (1978), Vernon, Florida (1981), and The Thin Blue Line (1988) each has a sense of critical absurdity, an affectionate eye-roll at American phenomena found in lingering takes and charming non-sequiturs. Mundane and extraordinary moments build as viewers observe quirky truths that map onto greater issues, layering delight, information, and meaning.

This early standard has continued through many years and films, from Mr. Death (1999) to Tabloid (2010) to American Dharma (2018). It’s worth recapping what establishes the first three films as this auteur’s foundation, while we mine them for their comedy gold:

Gates of Heaven: “She was nothing but a tramp in the first place!”

Morris’ first documentary is an evolving portrait of pet cemetery ownership in California. A surprising amount of drama emerges as the filmmaker digs into partnerships that went sour or brotherly competition for power. An initial Los Altos site established by a well-meaning man looks to avoid the horrors of the “glue factory” for beloved pets. Cut to a manager at a rendering plant, vehemently defending his work and the “standing deal” he has with the local zoo. There’s an elephant story.

But the realities of business eventually infiltrate the spirit of the cemetery, and the site is bulldozed, with the graves relocated to Napa. No doubt the property values in Silicon Valley would have always necessitated this move. From that point on, the documentary shifts to a kind of meditation on 1970s cultural mores about work itself. Two brothers that manage the new cemetery site represent hippie and yuppie ideals, as one plays guitar over the valley and the other espouses aggressive sales mantras.

These themes and juxtapositions provide the humorous backbone of the film, and little details are strikingly funny. You can map significant psychological meaning on each interview subject based on their backdrop. It’s easy to become obsessed with doing so because we don’t know their names or other basic information. An interview stands for itself, so the yuppie brother interviewed in front of a pool, next to a patio table with an inexplicable red phone on it is hilarious. Another guy always speaks with a Coors can close at hand.

Interviews are allowed to wander. It’s amazing what people want to disclose, how far off course their explanations take them. The quote above is from a Los Altos woman being interviewed about the cemetery’s move, when she suddenly pivots to her son and his ex-wife. Morris likes these tangents, as they seem to exorcise something for each interviewee, unburdening their mind while letting us glimpse their strengths and vulnerabilities. And ultimately, the worried mind is where the title of the film comes from: will our pets be accepted through the heavenly gates? There’s no answer to the question, only the exploration of the worry itself.

Vernon, Florida: “You ever see a man’s brains?”

Vernon is a small town with plenty of idiosyncrasies, including communication style. Watch this doc with the subtitles on. Whether it’s accent or age or various localisms, these men of Florida’s panhandle are difficult to follow without textual corroboration. It’s a shorter feature, but dense with funny scenes and lines. Townsmen share their interests, property, and animals, and delve into common myths and goals. They perform for the camera, so you get the sense that (at least some of) the absurdity is a joke we are all in on.

One of the characters is almost entirely turkey-centric. He’s a hunter with stories about each and every “gobbler” he’s shot. He’s either interviewed in front of a trophy board displayed with turkey feet and beards, or in the woods mistaking every movement and sound for gobbler portent. Other interviewees sit on benches or stand in front of hardware stores in town, spouting factoids or personal talents. My favorite is the old man with a backyard hutch filled with turtles and possums and other creatures. He holds them up while they pump their legs, escape futile. Morris also captures a pastor doing a sermon about looking up words in the dictionary.

The patterns of this small town build to a symphony of profound masculine weirdness. Possessions and experiences are laid out. Nature and history are both embraced and rebutted, as one man exclaims “them books is wrong!” Their embodied knowledge carries all the meaning they desire, and so viewers get to see both a real and imagined town come to life via carefully curated moments.

The Thin Blue Line: “She’s a ho, but if she finds out you did something, she’ll turn you in.”

True crime documentaries are often a lesson in dramatic irony. What you know as a viewer is measured against what unfolds in the timeline of a criminal case. Rewatching this film, I was struck with how irony is played with from the start, and therefore how deeply ridiculous some of the scenes are.

Randall Adams meets 16-year-old David Harris in Dallas in November 1976. They pal around for a day and then part ways. In December, Adams is arrested for murdering a police officer, implicated by Harris and several other dubious witnesses. We know Harris is manipulating the facts, and the doc is an exercise in misperceptions and miscarriages of justice. Reenactment is used to portray variations on how the events unfolded. We explore and examine and represent until the truth is arrived at. A police officer’s milkshake flying through the air becomes an absurd symbol of what we know and what we seek.

The comedy in this film comes in the forms of negligence and misrepresentation. Witnesses brag about their memory and then can’t remember, are blamed repeatedly for nosiness, or trade insults with each other. Police use hypnosis to alter an officer’s memories of the evening. Morris highlights the humor using careful imagery, including gangster film footage, clocks, and smoking guns. Details are also very silly: Harris and Adams go see a drive-in movie called Swinging Cheerleaders. Harris brags about shooting a police officer in his hometown and nobody believes him. He eventually hits a lady with a rolling pin and is arrested.

The truth finally comes from Morris’ interview skills, as he records a phone call with Harris where he discloses his motivation for framing Adams. It all turns out to be very petty and immature and simple. The intersecting personalities and justice system willfully denied such an evident truth. The film deftly maneuvers the tone, using irony to entertain and examine our perceptions.

Katherine has a PhD in Film Studies from the University of Iowa and an enduring opinionated love for documentary. More of her reviews can be found on her blog: