Reposting this for a couple of reasons. One, recently re-watched Smile, which was as mesmerising as the viewing that originally inspired this post. Also, because of this fantastic, engrossing profile of Errol Morris in Smithsonian Magazine.
If setting one’s anthropological or satirical sights on Southern California is as difficult as shooting an arrow into a side of a barn then setting them on a beauty pageant in mid 70’s Southern California is as hard as walking into the side of the same barn.
Michael Ritchie’s Smile (1975) and Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven (1978) serve as a useful reminders to never take an easy target for granted. Smile stars Bruce Dern and Barbra Feldon (Agent 99!!) in proto-mock-umentary about a small town beauty pageant in Santa Rosa, California. It is a direct, albeit far more subtle, progenitor of Christopher Guest’s mocumentaries. Gates of Heaven is a rigorously filmed documentary about the people whose lives cross at a pair of Southern Californian pet cemeteries. They are united by two fundamental convictions – the profound weirdness of Southern California, and the universality of human nature.
What’s amazing about the films is that they arrive at similar moments of profound insight and gob-smacking surreality from such very different starting points. As their personal philosophies, passions, and musings unspool, Morris’ subjects reach such high levels of quirk they seem to drift into the realm of fiction. What grounds them – what makes them so moving – is each oblique, strange, meandering interview becomes a loose prose poem to fundamental human themes – love, companionship, art, mortality, disappointment and aspiration. Richies’ film, a genuinely hilarious and gentle satire, is so lovingly staged, and the dialog so carefully wrought, that segments become little snowglobe dioramas the of human condition.
And what Tang frosted snowglobes! Both films have distilled over time into super saturated essences of the era. Belief in the promise of suburban Southern California seemed require the spiritual nourishment of ochre, flaming orange and lime. Filmed while the 70’s were in full swing, both directors stage and style scenes with Wes Anderson-esqe levels of compositional fussiness.
While they share a common nexus, each film leaves behind a distinctly different impression. Smile’s human moments dissipate quickly, and remains a big hearted time capsule. Gates of Heaven’s impact is far more profound and the weight of its numinous human strivings stay with you long after it’s scenes of 70’s kitsch fade.