I feel like I should preface this with some sort of spoiler warning. I’m going to talk about a shot in Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris’ documentary (superficially) about pet cemetaries, where an old lady talks meanderingly for a couple of minutes. I’m not going to give any big secret away, but I think it’s most affecting if you don’t anticipate it. Her monologue has almost nothing to do with the rest of the film, but for me the unexpectedness of hearing her speak and the depth of realness conveyed in her scene is the essence of what makes documentary filmmaking great.
Here she is, Florence Rasmussen:
And here is what she says:
I’m raised on a farm, we had chickens and pigs and cows and sheep and everything. But down here I’ve been lost. Now they’ve taken them all away from here up to that - What’s the name of that place? Up above here a little ways? That town? Commences with a ‘B.’ Blue. It’s - Blue Hill Cemetery, I think the name of it is. Not too far, I guess, about maybe twenty miles from here. A little town there, a little place. You know where it’s at. But I was really surprised when I heard they were getting rid of the cemetery over here. Gonna put in buildings or something over there. Ah well, I know people been very good to me, you know. Well, they see my condition, I guess, must of felt sorry for me. But it’s real, my condition is. It’s not put on. That’s for sure! Boy, if I could only walk. If I could only get out. Drive my car. I’d get another car. Ya… and my son, if he was only better to me. After I bought him that car. He’s got a nice car. I bought it myself just a short time ago. I don’t know. These kids - the more you do for them… He’ s my grandson, but I raised him from two years old… I don’t see him very often. And he just got the car. I didn’t pay for all of it. I gave him four hundred dollars. Pretty good! His boss knows it. Well, he’s not working for that outfit now. He’s changed. He’s gone back on his old job - hauling sand. No, not hauling sand; he’s working in the office. That’s right. He took over the office job. His boss told me that on the phone. But, you know, he should help me more. He’s all I got. He’s the one who brought me up here. And then put me here by myself among strangers. It’s terrible, you stop and think of it. I’ve been without so much, when I first come up here. Ya. It’s what half of my trouble is from - him not being home with me. Didn’t cost him nothing to stay here. Every time he need money, he’d always come, ‘Mom, can I have this? Can I have that?’ But he never pays back. Too good, too easy - that’s what everybody tells me. I quit now. I quit. Now he’s got the office job, I’m going after him. I’m going after him good, too - if I have to go in… in a different way. He’s going to pay that money. He’s got the office job now. And he makes good money anyway. And he has no kids. He has not married. Never get married, he says. He was married once - they’re divorced. Well, she tried to take him for the kid, but she didn’t. They went to court. It was somebody else’s kid. She was nothing but a tramp in the first place. I told him that. He wouldn’t listen to me. I says, ‘I know what she is.’ I said, ‘Richard, please, listen to me.’ He wouldn’t listen. He knew all, he knew everything. Big shot! But he soon found out. Now that’s all over with. I’ve been through so much I don’t know how I’m staying alive. Really, for my age… if you’re young, it’s different. But I’ve always said I’m never going to grow old. I’ve always had that, and the people that I tell how old I am, they don’t believe me, because people my age as a rule don’t get around like I do. (source)
I don’t really know how that reads, but when it came in the middle of the film I was knocked out. It’s like a brilliant photograph that lasts two minutes, a snapshot that captures events beyond what’s immediately visible. It’s all those things that writers struggle to convey: it’s universal, surprising, sad and happy, funny and poignant.
And despite being so out of place that it’s jarring, the scene somehow fits perfectly at the same time, evoking the same type of pathos that runs throughout the rest of the film, with it’s pet owners griefstricken at the loss of their dogs.
This is why I love documentaries. A great one can ostensibly be an investigation of a subject, a simple storytelling, but then gradually reveal itself to be about something much different, something much more important. A great documentary will stay with me for days the way no film can, and I won’t shut up telling anyone who will listen to me all about it. Watching something that scratches away at the surface of the ordinary is to realise how fake so many actors and dramatic writers are. Watching someone like Florence living out her story, abstracted on screen yet somehow brilliantly illuminated just by having a camera pointed at her, hammers the point home.