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Gates of Heaven (1978)

Not Rated | | Documentary, Comedy, Drama | October 1978 (USA)
A documentary about a pet cemetery in California, and the people who have pets buried there.



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Credited cast:
Lucille Billingsley ...
Zella Graham ...
Cal Harberts ...
Dan Harberts ...
Phil Harberts ...
Scottie Harberts ...
Mike Koewler ...
Floyd McClure ...
Ed Quye ...
Florence Rasmussen ...


The men who run a pet cemetery, and the men and women who bury their pets, become the subject of this documentary. We first meet Floyd McClure, a paraplegic with a dream to create a pet cemetery. One inspiration is the death of his collie years before; and the other is the local rendering plant, which turns animals into glue. He realizes his dream, only to see it fail. Then we visit a successful pet cemetery, run by a father and his two sons. One is a frustrated musician, nursing a broken heart. The other is joining the family business after selling insurance in Salt Lake City. Throughout, we also meet the people who have buried their pets. Written by J. Spurlin

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Not Rated

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October 1978 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

A mennyország kapui  »

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Did You Know?


Roger Ebert named this film as one of his top two films of all time. See more »


Pet cemetery investor: Death is for the living and not for the dead.
See more »


Referenced in Film Geek (2005) See more »

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User Reviews

people and their pets: stories of the human, and any, spirit in this great documentary
29 May 2007 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

They're not like us entirely, but they're just like us in an essential way: they want to have a good, solid profession (yes, it is as owners and workers at a pet cemetery), and they love(d) their pets. There's an essential part of the doc where a woman talks about the 'spirit' and how when a body dies the spirit must go elsewhere.

Although the topic of if there is heaven or hell or any kind of afterlife can be debated till days end, a film like Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris' debut, gives the very clear notion that an animal does have a spirit, because the human being that cares for it has a level of love and compassion and just sheer avoidance of loneliness that a spirit must be present. Life becomes all the greater of importance when loss comes, as a cycle comes for those who have loved and lost, and it's just the same with animals as with people. You don't have to be an eccentric, like some may be (or may not be depending on your definition of eccentric), to know what life is, at the least when it's gone.

There's not one person in Morris' bizarrely funny and expertly unobtrusive look at the lives and work of those involved with pet cemeteries who is without some kind of spirit, and in all their slightly strange (the guy who works at the meat processing plant), sort of mockable in the Christopher Guest sense (there's one guy, the ex-insurance agent son of the cemetery worker, who goes by the "Double As and Double Rs" as rules for life and has trophies on his desk when he had job applicants for encouragement), and cheerfully quaint (the old lady who complains about her son, and wishes she could drive) appearances on film, they're very much alive.

It's not exactly a satire, though one might think it was an off-key one if it were a mockumentary. 'Gates' is layered in ways that many documentaries try to shy away from, and at the same time Morris has a definite knack for presenting the people objectively- or however much a documentary filmmaker, or any filmmaker, can present them 'as is' in their testimonials- while having a very subtle hand with subjectivity with the camera. It's obvious Morris didn't have much money to make the film (it took Herzog and eating his shoe to help get the film released), but there are little moments of invention, like the spinning newspaper to the headline, or the unflinching angles on the ex-plot-of-land for the dead pets which is now next to a highway, or just simple pans or having one man- the musician son of the Harberts family- listening to the music he's recorded.

Morris has lots of things like that going on, but it's really all a series of stories and personal accounts of two sides of pet cemetery workers/owners: the completely heartfelt and crippled Floyd McClure, who due to not getting all the paperwork right, despite having all of the heart he could muster up, lost his pet cemetery and all the animals were dug up. Seeing this gentle man of conscience is one part of Morris's layering, as he's a sincere individual who truly loves the animals he worked to find resting places (and despises the equally passionate, crafty but laughable rendering plant owner), and with a fatal flaw at work that he trusted animals more than people.

But then there's the mixed flip side of the Harberts family, who took the dead pets previously buried with McClure, where the patriarch is a consummate professional, his kids either have not much interest in the outside world except their own creativity (the musician), or have accepted their lot in life as a worker for the family (the ex-insurance salesman). These are the kinds of people that one would've not really seen on Six Feet Under, if only because in this case suggestion, from the interviews, says probably more than the deep character analysis of the show.

And Morris deftly mixes these two stories with some people who've had their pets buried, or knew people who had their pets buried, at the cemeteries. The woman who says the part about the pet having a spirit is one, but there's also the woman who tries to get her little dog to sing, or the one who talks about the grief she had with the death of her dog, and at the end of her tips to help save one's dog the husband says "neutered."

There are close-ups of the words on the grave-sites of the animals that ring this tragic-comic tone of the film ever so much, that there's enough in just having a memory left, of remembrances for these creatures that lived as short as two years and as long as sometimes twenty, for those who were closest to them. Gates of Heaven, while not quite Morris's best film (Fog of War and especially Thin Blue Line are higher up, though not by a lot) is a worthwhile 80 minute observation of the shaky but absolute reasons why that people need pets, and in effect just need each other period.

4 of 7 people found this review helpful.  Was this review helpful to you?

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