Film Reviews

Gates of Heaven Errol Morris

Rating - 7/10

As a work existing even beyond its mythical status, Errol Morris' debut documentary Gates of Heaven (1978) manages to cautiously approach its subject matter yet flourish in ambiguity of tone and images.  Is the film objective or subjective?  Does it purport to be a study of loneliness or a mocking guffaw?  Roger Ebert has famously called it a "litmus test" for audiences who cannot decide if it is one or the other.  Inspired and expanded from a San Francisco Chronicle headline, "450 Dead Pets Going to Napa Valley," Gates of Heaven focuses on an assortment of characters involved in the pet cemetery business in 1970s California.  Initially appearing as a wistful pioneer, Floyd "Mac" McClure is seated under a huge weeping willow tree at a long shot, which immediately establishes a confounding tone; the man's forthcoming tragic tale is held within the boundaries of a bizarre, almost comical rural postcard portrait.  While his monologue, too, is often stilted and uneducated, his sentiment is genuine with a moving story of the loss of his pet collie at the mercy of an automobile.  Wanting to provide a proper burial, he takes this reverence three steps further and spots a "beautiful piece of land" in Los Altos along Highway 280 that would fulfill his personal dream of building a pet cemetery to put his beloved dog to rest and ensure that others would have the same opportunity.  Inevitably and sadly, the business fails, and the pets' remains are transported to the Nepa Valley to become part of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park.  Its owner Cal Harberts (who looks and talks strangely like Bill Clinton), wife Scottie, and their two sons, Dan and Phil, have assumed strict responsibility for this operation.  Officially, Gates of Heaven concludes with an emphasis on the idiosyncratic behavior of the Harberts, but the film remains stuck in a limbo of questions concerning the human race's need for companionship and belief in some kind of reunion in the afterlife.

In Les Blank's amusingly literal short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) that documents gonzo filmmaker Werner Herzog's uncanny bet with Morris to make Gates of Heaven, Herzog remarks that the film embodies a "new grammar of images."  Without applying his quote to one specific scene, this is best exemplified in the stationary method of camera operation, which deceivingly lends itself to objectivity.  Morris primarily situates his subjects at close-ups, allowing them to candidly ramble to his camera, but he also splices dialogue intuitively to create a unique tone within his own body of work.  Herzog's belief may also be strongly complemented by an array of gaudy fashions and irregular backdrops, perhaps accidentally shot, intentionally staged or even both in Morris' strange tangible world.  Regarding the backdrops in which many couples explain the lives of their pets and burial procedures, Morris could be liable for intentionally positioning them within the contextual oddity of their rhetoric.  As couples who intimately discuss their pets are encircled by fields of wheat or cacti patches, it elicits an absurdity of their conscious versus subconscious behavior.  In this case, it would seem that Morris is mocking or facilitating a comical attribute to the film in which the viewer has a heightened awareness of peculiar claims.

The film's tagline of "Death is for the living and not for the dead so much" justifies a contemplation of correlations between the living and the departed even if the bond in question concerns different species on separate functional planes.  Since a considerable portion of Gates of Heaven emphasizes the various personal yarns and the lamenting losses of beloved animals, a theoretical theme emerges on the meditation on human loneliness and the need to feel loved.  The represented people (or "characters" as Morris has written) are obviously compelled to bestow love upon animals, because many of them do not appear to bear children.  This is something that the film does not illuminate or negate; it is simply personal observation.  Yet, with another complementary assumption, this affection for animals becomes a form of irony and self-parody, best presented by Scottie Harberts, who declares, “Surely at the gates of Heaven, an all-compassionate God is not going to say, 'Well, you're walking in on two legs; you can go in.  You're walking in on four legs; we can't take you.'"  This is a loaded and ignorant statement, as it not only links the souls of animals and humans, but it begs the question.  While Scottie isn't given the opportunity (or simply denies) to explicate her faith beyond simple sentences, she certainly alludes to hypocritical behavior.  Why in all probability does this family eat meat if they believe animals have souls?  Wouldn't that practice be an affront to their entire operation?  Does she believe that house pets like dogs and cats have souls but farm animals like cattle, chickens and pigs do not?  The film does not conclude on the dietary habits of its stars, but Morris does not document any piece of information that would suggest the Harberts are vegetarians or vegans.  Self-obsession and unique novelty seem to be of utmost importance to the director and his ostensible characters.

Concerning his approach as a filmmaker, Errol Morris has said, "I’ve always thought of my portraits as my own version of the Museum of Natural History -- these very odd dioramas where you're trying to create some foreign exotic environment and place it on display."  If applied to Gates of Heaven, this is a condescending remark (as his character portraits supposedly become scrutinized exhibits in the same context as the locales), the documentary could also be considered a leisurely montage of extremely personal spaces for characters to orate and elucidate their own beliefs without the direct invasion of narration or rehearsed questioning.  Despite the manipulative nature of the editing process of any film, people speak freely about their deceased pets as a parent would of a son or daughter.  Of course critics, by definition, have been the most judgmental of the culture represented in Morris' film.  For example, Michael Covino, writer for Film Quarterly, has commented on the supposed 'artificiality as authenticity' of the film's documentary approach.  Primarily in regards to the Harberts residence, Covino writes, "...The social precision of the interiors corresponds perfectly with the painful artificiality of the way these people talk."  Yes, Gates of Heaven is an ode and simultaneous censure to the unique facets of human life, but it reveals a depth to the human treatment of death and reverence for the dead adjoined to religious and possibly agnostic belief.  It undoubtedly encapsulates humanity's need for consolation even if it may wander in ambiguous territory and illuminate a certain tragic and baseless ignorance.