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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
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.
This is the movie over which Werner Herzog ate his footwear.
The story goes that Errol Morris had no money to finance a film and Herzog's advice to him was to do it anyway. (Herzog is not known for his restraint, fiscal and otherwise.) Morris hadn't made a film before and had no options for financing. Herzog promised him that if Morris indeed made a film, Herzog would come to the premiere and eat his shoe.
As they say, the rest is history. Herzog flew in from Germany for the California premiere carrying the same shoes he had on when he made the promise. He boiled them with vegetables and stood in front of the audience as the film was being readied and, as good as his word, ate one entire shoe, clipping off bits with metal shears. He did leave the soles and the eyelets.
Gates of Heaven is a one-camera job, lots of nice stationary shots, some interminable interview footage with owners of pet cemeteries and developers looking to make a quick dollar out of lonely-hearts' grief and one too honest renderer whose willingness to talk casts him in a rather bad light. About ten minutes in you begin to wish that Morris had earlier discovered Philip Glass, as he would for The Thin Blue Line, to help this quirky story along. It shows little of the promise that would be fulfilled in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control; but for all that, Morris has a style right from the outset, and what's lacking in technical expertise is compensated for by his shrewd eye for human nature. It sticks with you. The Morris catalog would be incomplete without it. It's a good companion rental to balance out the emptiness of a Judge Dredd or Last Man Standing.
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.
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!"
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...
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.
I picked a bad time to watch this movie. I just finished watching
"Napoleon Dynamite," where it's unclear whether we're supposed to
relate to the eccentric characters or pity and despise them. That film
got me to thinking about other movies that seem to cast a condescending
eye on the people involved, specifically "Waiting for Guffman," a fake
documentary about small-town folk who want to take their
community-theater production to Broadway, and "American Movie," a real
documentary about people making a cheap horror film.
And now I watch this documentary, which tells the story of two pet cemeteries in California. And again it's unclear how the filmmaker feels about the people we meet, or how we're supposed to feel about them. Errol Morris, who followed this initial success with several other well-regarded documentaries like "The Thin Blue Line" and "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control" has an unobtrusive style here. He simply points the camera at people and let's them talk in long, rambling monologues. We never see or hear him, but of course his attitude is reflected in what material he chooses, how he edits it and in the subject of the movie in the first place.
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 rages against this hellish factory, not seeing the irony in noting that he couldn't smell the meat on his own table for the stench emanating from the place. 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.
Morris allows a lot of his subjects to cast themselves in a bad or ridiculous light. The man who runs the rendering department admits lying to the public whenever they have a beloved zoo animal. And though he's very defensive about his line of work, he can't suppress himself from calling the people who grieve over their dead pets "moaners." The older son at the successful cemetery is shown in his office, in which trophies line the desk and the shelves behind him. He claims a job applicant was impressed and inspired by the trophies. Throughout, he endlessly spouts clichés from motivational books.
Oddly, I didn't cringe as much at the people who spent thousands of dollars to bury their pets. Somehow they came off as silly, yet ennobled by their love for their animals.
Since this movie we've been treated to an endless stream of reality TV and Christopher Guest mockumentaries and Dave Letterman bits where the average guy on the street is put in the spotlight only to be made a fool of. I know a lot of people see this film as beautiful and full of interesting philosophical questions Roger Ebert, who puts this on his all-time ten best list, prominently among them. Maybe I was in the wrong frame of mind, but I didn't enjoy it.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Errol Morris' career starts here, with this subversive documentary
about pet cemeteries. Of course this being Morris, "Gates of Heaven" is
not really about cemeteries, but about the mediocrity, horrors and
vacuousness of middle class America.
What's staggering is how precise a tightrope Morris walks. On one hand, the film seems to be about pet cemetery rackets and the predatory nature of businessmen who exploit human fears and frailties (the love of animals, fear of death etc). On the other, it's mocking humans for being stupid and easily duped, and yet on the other (yes, this freakish film has three hands), this is a grotesquely moving and very human piece of work, Morris celebrating the eccentricities of pet lovers and small towners without surrendering to phony warmth. As a result, the film possesses an odd blend of horror, humour and heart.
The film mostly consists of interviews, slow pans and talking heads, Morris interviewing embalmers, cemetery owners, bankrupted businessmen and people whose pets have just died. We watch as these people simply talk, Morris not asking questions, providing narration or adding any stylistic flourishes. It's Frederick Wiseman meets David Lynch.
What's interesting is the sheer oddness of the people Morris meets, and how utterly normal their oddness is. Whilst a doc-maker like Marcel Ophuls adopts a confrontational style when preying on his subjects, Morris instead treats his camera as a confession booth, his subjects anxious to share their wisdom and eager to express themselves. One woman speaks, for example, of establishing a deep and meaningful relationship with her poodle, another frets about being unable to find the right exit off a highway, whilst others deliver incredible monologues peppered with strangely chosen words and intonations. The end result is the world of Lynch's "Blue Velvet", only take much further, Norman Rockwell facades peeled away to reveal (every shot is artfully composed by Morris, designed specifically to emphasise a kind of glossy banality, a veneer of vapidity) something utterly ordinary, sad, silly, desperate, depressing and yet touching.
Incidentally, this is the film which prompted Werner Herzog to eat his shoe. Yes, it's that kind of film.
8/10 Worth one viewing. Makes a good companion piece to Morris' masterpiece, "The Thin Blue Line".
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