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GATES OF HEAVEN is one of those fascinating films that no matter how many times you see, the mysteries contained in it only get deeper. The film is a documentary about pet cemeteries, but what may have turned into a freak show- a movie about people who value pets so much they pay thousands of dollars to bury them- becomes an inspection of the human soul. The film is a deep, dark chasm of human emotion. Errol Morris starts his famous documentary style of just letting people talk. Unlike Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield, who are as much the subject of their own documentaries as their directors, we never see or even hear Morris' voice. He just lets the people tell their story their way. The film is haunting and will stay with the viewer long after it's over. It truly is a landmark film in movie history. Roger Ebert was not overstating this movies genius when he named it one of the ten best films of all time. My Grade: 10/10
The film starts with an man talking about his journey to achieve his dream of opening a pet cemetery in the south bay of San Francisco. We meet the people who help him: investors, friends, pet lovers. We also meet the guy against him, the guy who makes a living out of disposing of dead animals. This is the first part of the film. The second part of the film we meet a family that runs a successful pet cemetery, called the Bubbling Well Pet Cemetery. We meet the father, the head of the business, his wife, the moral supporter, for a lack of a better definition, and we meet the two sons involved in assisting in operations, one is a former insurance worker, the other is a business admin college grad. This is the basic outline of the film. And this sounds kind of boring, maybe. But boring it is not. If anything, slow at times. Thats because the camera is usually completely still and people are positioned in front of the camera, talking into it. What is interesting is how when these characters talk they let loose and go on tangents, exposing their world views, usually in the context of pets, and what we see is the humanity of these seemingly regular people, their musings on life and death, companionship, love, filial duty. For instance, the first man with the pet cemetery idea talks about how you can't trust people, how if you turn around they might stab you in the back, but his dog would never do this because you can trust your dog. The dead pet disposal guy rants about, and is surprised at the emotional connection people have with pets, as though it was something he just discovered in his line of work, and his line of work is treated by him as just a job, not anything controversial. And the sons of the successful pet cemetery owner, one is a motivational speaker. He talks about projecting ideas of success and refraining from using negative words with his little daughter, when she has done something wrong. And the other son talks about his musical aspirations and how he found out what love is in college and then found out about the hard break up afterwards. Erol Morris succeeds at exposing the layers of peoples in a real light, sometimes showing the contradictory and absurdness of peoples personalities and yet also showing the genuineness of people and their intentions. At times the film is comical, at times very serious, and other times sad. Morris is a keen observer of human behavior and this film illustrates this very well. For some local history from the southern SF bay area, for an interesting look at peoples views on very common human issues we can all relate with and of course on pets, see this nice movie. 8 out of 10.
I first saw this movie in a college theater in its initial release. The
movie poster claimed it was "Not quite a movie about pet cemeteries." I
didn't know what to expect, but I have always liked the offbeat. This
movie, which even Roger Ebert calls one of his all-time favorites,
turned out to be offbeat and much, much more.
Without poking fun at his subjects, Morris exposes us to the world of pet cemeteries--both the owners and caretakers of them and the people who've placed the remains of a cherished pet in their care. Sometimes we are moved by empathy; other times we laugh out loud at the preposterousness of it. (Are they for real?) At no time does Morris pass judgment. He leaves that up to us.
Along the way we meet the owner of a rendering service, and learn what happens when the circus comes to town. We learn that "God" is "dog" spelled backwards, and we meet an aspiring musician. Morris captures on film the things that make us human: grief, love, self-importance, and an unabashed silliness. The result is a quirky, poignant, and sometimes hilarious look at man's relationship with his pets.
As an animal lover I found many poignant moments here. The woman who would
sometimes forget her dog was dead--I went through that myself in my teens
with my beloved childhood dog, so I know how painful it is. And the cemetery
owner's theory that pets are more important now because of the pill makes a
lot of sense. Nevertheless, I feel certain Christopher Guest MUST have had
this film in mind when he made "Best in Show"! Oh my god there is some
unintended hilarity here. On the part of the interviewees, that is; I'm sure
Morris knew what he had. The cemetery family, the rendering plant
manager...hoo boy! The overall feeling, though, is that we love our animals
and they are indeed very special and precious.
The elderly woman talking about her ungrateful bum of a son was very sad...I'm going to go call my mother right now.
I saw this film for the first time about 2 years ago on IFC and thankfully I videotaped it. Since then, I've watched it 10 or 11 times and it always fascinates me. I especially like the last third of the film in which we meet the harberts family who own the Bubbling Well Pet Cemetary in Nappa Valley. They all seem so sincere and at the same time they crack me up. Errol Morris just has a way of letting real life people go on and on about a subject without it ever becoming boring...
Early Errol Morris documentary, pitting the true believers versus the
salesmen of the world. Both trying to fill a need, I got the vibe that
when Floyd McClure talked about that specifically, he was really
talking about the emotional hole left in people's lives by a departed
pet. Rather than a hole in one's wallet, or just the hole in the
Evidently the first part of this took place darn close to where I live these days: Los Altos, CA! Indeed there is a "Gates of Heaven" cemetery up by Rancho San Antonio, but I think that's just for us two-legged critters.
While this definitely had some clever editing (a couple of times, he turned on a word beautifully from one interviewee to the next), there was a lot of strange miscellany left in the film. I call to the witness stand the lady who loaned her son $400 for a car, but never sees him any more. Additionally the two squabbling ladies of Los Altos. Fascinating to watch, and more of a precursor to Morris' "First Person" show (worth catching if you can!) He just kind of sets the camera down and let's folks go awhile...like a confessional/diary as much as his latter day interregatron.
Somehow, whether by coaxing them with a Coors, or just quietly sitting and filming, Morris gets people to really expound on whatever details of their life seem to really matter to them. A couple of the pet couples are placed before tall images of flora? Not sure of the significance.
The most touching moment is the filming of the little tombstones for a variety of pets, all with some heartfelt little sententia or sweet goodbye. Putting it on film in a way makes these even more immortal.
Not sure how people who don't have any pets at all will react to this. I watched this with our 11-year old Wire Fox Terrier, but he zonked out (tends to prefer Bollywwod?). But I'm sitting there thinking of his mortality and the proposed $3K charge for cataract surgery and being a bit torn between loving my pet deeply, versus calculating the cost of him.
I guess the rendering man is important; he did all he could to wipe the smirk off his face having clearly jumped the shark on the pet v. food debate. And I mean putting food on his table...as much as quasi-food like bonemeal and by-products. For him, it was just a job *clearly* and he seemed perplexed how anybody could see it otherwise.
But bottom line, all of these people were making their living (including Morris as the filmmaker) off the death of pets. We want our lives to be filled with more than making our rent and paying our bills, and one way we try to do that is through our relationships with pets.
This film's alright, not up there with some of Morris' other work. Oddly comic at times. Like jeez, the pet cemetery called "Bubbling Well", that sounds like a code phrase for a rendering plant. Ick. "Gates of Heaven" felt at times like a strange good-guy/bad-guy dramatic film rather than a documentary. By the way, where are the trophy (Caine?) and guitar (Abel?) brothers today?? Looks like they're still in business
Bottom line, I'd say see this, but only *after* taking the dog out for a nice walk or a run along the beach.
PS My dog wants to add
"A cemetery for cats, come on you've got to be kidding!"
At first glance, Gates of Heaven appears to be a
documentary about the lives of people that run pet cemetaries.
On second glance, you realize you are witnessing a visual
essay on the subject of death and dying, and how these
average folk deal with it.
There are esesentially three parts to the film. All deal with either the struggle to build a pet cemetery or maintaining a pet cemetery. The most interesting segment is with a family who runs a successful cemetery in the desert of California. You see generations of a family that has done nothing but run this business. They explain the philosophy behind why they choose to bury pets, and why pets deserve burial just as humans do.
Morris lets the camera do all the work. With the exception of two shots every other one is static. A talking head documentary that could probably fit the definition exactly. Morris knows when exactly to inject humor into the film, just enough to keep you interested.
If you saw this film nowadays, you would expect it to be on Lifetime or some other obscure cable channel. With a third glance and possibly a fourth, you can see the message Morris is trying to get across. Everyone has a way of dealing with death. It is just how you deal with it that determines how comfortable you are with it.
This video has me half- crazed in trying to ascertain just what was the point of the whole thing. Does anyone need a movie to learn that humans have strong and sometimes bizarre pet relationships? Why mix a man"s dedication to building the best pet cemetary in the world with the tiresome motivation theory of his one son and the aimless meanderings of the other? What is the message here and why does this lame documentary deserve a cult following? Errol Morris is a favorite of mine, but this amateurish attempt of explaining death ia hardly a harbinger of his later,much greater efforts. Sorry, Ebert.
If this had been the first Errol Morris documentary I'd seen, then
perhaps I would have enjoyed it much more than I did. After having seen
possibly his best film, MR. DEATH (a magnificent documentary by
Morris), I think my expectations for GATES OF HEAVEN were higher than
what it delivered.
This film is a documentary about pet cemeteries--the people who own them, run them, patronize them or who are in affiliated industries. Like other Morris documentaries I've seen, there is no narration--the people just talk and talk and talk. While this can work very well, in this documentary it created a piece with little sense of direction or purpose. Sometimes, what you saw was pretty interesting or insightful and often it just seemed like pointless rambling. I really wish Morris had taken the more poignant moments and fleshed them out some more. In particular, the rather sad old lady towards the beginning who just ranted about how her son takes advantage of her and how she's all alone--this was VERY powerful and compelling but then the scene abruptly changed--leaving me feeling rather annoyed. Another interesting person was the guy at the rendering plant. While I agreed, in part, with him and his sensibilities, he sure came off as a bit of a jerk and I wanted this to be pursued as well.
Overall, this is a very hit or miss film with many dull moments--peppered by some that are actually a bit intriguing. My advice is to try some of Morris' other documentaries--with experience, they certainly got better.
UPDATE: Apparently, director Werner Herzog told Morris that he'd eat his shoe if GATES OF HEAVEN ever got released. And, since it did, Les Blank made a strange little documentary in which Herzog talks (A LOT) and eats his shoe. I saw it on Turner Classic Movies recently.
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.
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