Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Columbia Pictures VHS
A late scene in Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven consists of patient, static shots of headstones. The graves are for deceased pets. Near one, we see a rubber chew toy (a newspaper that reads: “The Dailey Growl”) in lieu of a bouquet of flowers. Many have plaques, with pictures and quaintly canny elegies (“God is love — backward it’s dog”). The scene is somewhat ambiguous in its intent (it is also quite surreal) and will decide, for the viewer, if the film is either comedic or philosophic. The two evaluations are evidenced numerously in the film, and are contrary.
There is much comedy in the film, as when an older woman lifts her dog level with her face and chants “I love my Mama!” until the animal repeats her in a yelp that bears a phonetic similarity. There are subtler examples: each interviewed character speaks in heavy colloquy; words are misused and noticeably mispronounced. The film seems to be, justifiably, exploitative in its depiction of these people. At the same time, however, it is apparent they bear little persuasive influence in their speech. The camera is set up and activated, and its subject is allowed to ruminate (at length, often). These are real voices and real thoughts.
Gates of Heaven’s subject is a pet cemetery, ostensibly (this subject alone is of interest for its austerity). The film is Errol Morris” first, inspired by an article about the relocation of a Los Altos pet cemetery to the more expansive Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in the Napa Valley in the 1970s. The relocation required the removal, transport, and reburial of hundreds of buried animals. The first half of the film includes lengthy interviews with Floyd McClure, the proprietor of the first cemetery, and the owner of a local rendering plant. Between the two is a conflict both political and spiritual. The rendering profession is functionally convenient (when an incongruous zoo attraction dies, it must somehow be disposed), yet is devoid of spiritual intimacy and compassion — traits that distinguish McClure’s ideals.
The film is halved by an unforgettable monologue delivered by an old woman in her front doorway. It is entirely and welcomely out of place. She is a neighbor to McClure’s cemetery, a former pet owner herself, and is allowed to speak of her connection. This aim dissolves into nonsense. In the minutes she is onscreen her thoughts enter her speech and instantly drift away. It is a moment captured, and is, again, ambiguously effective: at once tangibly raw, hilarious, and unexpectedly depressive.
The relationship between owners and their pets channels other, infinitesimally deeper issues, such as the notion of the necessity of companionship, that distrust is an infallibly human tendency, and even deeper ruminations on spiritual fate. The subject allows and even encourages meanderings (such meanderings reinforce the relevance of the film’s austere subject). Despite its ambiguity, the film pronounces these larger issues.
The film is stylistically simplified, bereft of most any camera movement, consisting of people sitting and talking in straightforward compositions, each looking directly into the camera. (One subject is carefully seated beneath a portrait of a poodle, presumably deceased.) The film is edited, in Morris” trademark gesture, in order to establish parallels between separate monologues — each person in this film is present for different reasons (some are only incidentally tied to the premise), yet their voices (in editing, a unison) all seem to acknowledge an inherent human desperation for companionship, one uniquely analogized in the relationship with a pet.
The film contains no title or location credits (staple punctuations in most documentary films). There is confusion as to who is talking at times, though this omission seems purposefully distant. The emphasis is not on the person talking but what they are saying, and the transcendent relevance of their idiosyncratic speech. Gates of Heaven includes a variety of thought and philosophy, and fosters disparity in its reception. It is a documentary with subject and no argument, and is nonetheless deeply, deeply ruminative.
My favorite scene in the film (I’ll add: one of the more persistently and personally relevant scenes I’ve seen) occurs near its end. Danny Harberts, the younger son of Bubbling Well’s owner, speaks of his connection to the pet cemetery. He is a college graduate, maintains the business aspect of the cemetery, and lives in solitude on a hill that overlooks the entire valley. He cites his passion to play the guitar, and in a gesture both exhilarating and solemn places his amplifier outside towards the distant horizon, and fills the great space with impassioned and varied guitar riffs.
Roger Ebert has famously lauded Gates of Heaven as one of the “top-ten films of all time” (the citation is perhaps the critic’s most persuasive). It is a justified assessment I cite not only for the fact that it encouraged my interest in the film, but that it serves to validate the worth of a film that is dismissed as exploitation seemingly as often as it is lauded for its depth.