Week 14: Gates of Heaven (1978)

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Gates of Heaven
Directed by Errol Morris
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Running time 82 minutes

Before Viewing

As I have stated before, I am a fan of documentaries. I like to hear people tell stories about their lives and their experiences. I like to see actual events documented on film or through photographs. One of the perks of living in this information age is the fact that we now get to see history as it unfolds. We can analyze it, learn from it, and even be comforted or tormented by it. A good documentary both informs and entertains, and the subject stays with us a long time after viewing.

I heard about Gates of Heaven from Ebert’s ‘Great Movies’ essays, and I found it interesting that he said the reaction to this film is pretty divided. He claims it’s one of the best films *ever* made, but he says people come up to him after he presents it and asks him if it’s a joke. They wonder if the filmmaker, Errol Morris,  is actually making fun of the people who are the subject of this documentary, his first film. The movie is about pet cemetaries, and certainly that could be a setup for some kind of dark, morbid comedy. As Morris is an Academy Award-winning documentarian, I decided to give it a try.

My Thoughts After Viewing

When I turn my back I don’t know you, not truly, but I can turn my back on my little dog and I know that he’s not going to jump on me or bite me. But human beings can’t be that way.

This quote, spoken by one of the principal figures in the film, pretty much sums up the point of the film. The movie is less about the actual cemetaries and more about how people deal with the loss of loved ones and with mortality- it’s just that the subject of their grief are their pets. The film is about love and devotion, about compassion, and even about greed.

The film itself is presented in a very minimalist style. Although we are introduced to many people though the course of the film, there are no title cards that give us names. We only know a character’s name if they provide it or if something in the shot reveals it, like a placard on a desk. However, we know the subject’s connection to the story based on what comes out of their mouths, and this is the strength of the film- the people who Morris interviews, especially in the first half of the film, are good storytellers.

The film is broken into two parts. The first half, which begins with a wonderful establishing shot of a man sitting under a tree, recounts the story of Floyd McClure, a self-described ‘compassionate’ man who decided one day, after his beloved dog died, that the community needed a place where people could lay their pets to rest in dignity. Floyd recounts the ugliness of the rendering plants where he grew up, equating them with Hell itself. In a brilliant movie, Morris Floyd’s testimony with the owner of a rendering plant who joyfully talks about his business. The rendering plant owner doesn’t understand why people hate his line of work, even at one point almost gleefully telling the camera about the secret understanding he has with the local zoo concerning the disposal of dead zoo animals. It’s funny to watch Mr. Rendering Plant trying to put a positive spin on his industry, and this contrasts nicely with Floyd’s somber tone. Floyd thinks it’s disgraceful to treat a pet, even a lifeless one, the way the rendering plants do. To Morris’ credit, he doesn’t play favorites or side with either point of view. There a no shots of dead animals being taken into the rendering plant, or of the actual rendering equipment itself. This is not an expose on the rendering business- it’s simply two men sharing their point of view, with great results.

The rest of this segment consists of interviews with some of Floyd’s former employees and investors, and through them we learn that although Floyd had a vision, he wasn’t much of a businessman (0ne friend reveals that he lost about $30,000 as an investor). It’s obvious that everyone involved thought that the pet cemetary would be a great idea, but it failed because they never thought of it as a business- it was a labor of love. We learn that the animals had to be dug up and moved, and the segment ends with a shot of Floyd sitting under a tree in his wheelchair- probably heartbroken knowing that the cemetary failed, yet still content in the fact that he did something that mattered to those pet owners.

The second half of the film centers on Bubbling Wells Pet Memorial Park, a successful pet cemetary run by the Harberts Family. Cal, the patriarch, is a very down-to-earth fellow, but he’s also a very astute businessman. It’s clear that he understands how people are affected by the loss of their pets and why such a facility would be so important to them. He’s assisted by his sons Danny and Phillip. Phillip seems to have inherited his father’s business knowledge (before he came to work at the cemetary, he was a successful insurance salesman). When interviewed in his office, he’s surrounded by plaques and other reminders of his success. He understands the business of grief. His brother Danny is the polar opposite- he seems emotional and sad, at one point playing his guitar outside on a hill overlooking the cemetary. However, he has a better grasp of the emotional side of the job (much better than Phillip does) and sees things much more clearly. Bubbling Wells works because the family knows what people want- areas in the cemetary have marketable names that are also comforting, like ‘The Garden of Companionship’ and the staff is there for them in their time of need. In one scene, Cal is presiding over a burial, comforting the grieving pet owners. He’s not slimy, though, coming across as someone taking advantage of people suffering a loss- he’s very sincere. Floyd was also sincere, but he was no business man; The Harberts understand that it’s not enough to be caring- to be successful, you have to use your head as well as your heart.

The film is also filled with insight from pet owners who have felt it necessary to provide a burial for their pets. One woman rationalizes it by stating:

There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?

Others provide unintentional humor. I could see why some people might think that Morris was making fun of these people, but it’s clear that these people are speaking from the heart. Nothing is rehearsed here. That’s the beauty of these interviews, and of course it might lead to some funny moments. I didn’t see anything mean-spiritied in using these clips- in fact, it’s a testament to Morris’ skill as a documentarian that he could get these individuals to share what was on their minds. I think people might be thrown off because some of the things they say might border on the absurd, and since the ‘mockumentary’ format has be come so popular (think ‘The Office’), modern viewers might get the feeling that someone is pulling thier leg. However, I though it was clear everything was genuine. Nothing feels rehearsed. There’s no prompting off-camera by Morris. People are just allowed to talk, and they do. The centerpiece of these interviews is provided between the segments, and fills in as kind of a comic relief: a woman by the name of Florence Rassumssen, who was probably interviewed due to her proximity to the cemetary, instead shares with us everything and anything about her life and whatever comes to her mind. She’s one of those people who like to talk and do so at the drop of a hat. She can’t help but make you smile with her honesty, and I’m sure she’ll remind you of someone you know.

On the whole, the film is interesting, but I have a feeling that it might not be as accessible to audiences today, especially younger viewers. It’s a very static film, filled with talking heads. What they say is wonderful, but in a lot of cases, there’s not a lot going on visually. There’s not a lot of movement in front of the camera (although some of the shots are framed expertly). There is some minimal use of newspapers, some shots of the land and of some work being done, and a short sequence where we are shown a few of the pet headstones, but for the most part, it’s simply shots of the interviewee talking. It’s a total contrast from some other documentaries I’ve seen recently, but those were newer (perhaps they had a different generation in mind when they made them). I’m afraid some people might simply find the film boring, especially if they don’t have an ear for dialogue. That’s too bad, too, because they’d miss some great insights on loss and mortality as well as some genuinely funny moments. Personally, I felt the first part was better than the second. Floyd’s story (intercut with the conversation with Mr. Rendering Plant) seemed to be more in the spirit of what I like to see from a documentary- people thinking back to an event or point in time and sharing what it meant to them.

Final Verdict

If you enjoy documentaries because you like to hear what people say, this one’s for you. Just be warned that it’s what people say, rather than what they do, that make this film.

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