GATES OF HEAVEN (1978)

  • Director: Errol Morris
  • Starring: Floyd McClure, Cal Harberts, and Florence Rasmussen
  • Accolades: Debuted at New York International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to AMC Plus or Criterion Channel, Buy or rent with Amazon Video or YouTube

Gates of Heaven is a very low key documentary about a pet cemetery in California, in which nothing super dramatic happens, and with no narration. There’s a pet cemetery, it goes out of business, the pets all get dug up and moved, then we meet the people at the new pet cemetery. It’s about 95% people just talking straight at the camera. It also might be one of my favorite movies. I think its appeal comes from ordinary people saying extremely profound things without realizing it. Roger Ebert consistently put it on lists of his ten favorite movies of all time after its release. He wrote that he had seen it over thirty times, and still wasn’t sure what it was about. “All I know is it’s about a lot more than pet cemeteries.”

This is the first feature by Errol Morris, maybe the second most famous American documentary director these days, after Ken Burns. He apparently saw a San Francisco newspaper article about the buried pets being moved and thought it might make an interesting movie. He asked the great German director Werner Herzog, who has made some pretty great documentaries himself, what he thought, and Herzog said that he would “eat his shoe” if Morris could make a successful movie out of this material. After watching Gates of Heaven, he made his own short film, entitled Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which is probably self-explanatory. 

The documentary very loosely fits into two parts. The first half of the movie centers around the idea of one Floyd McClure to start a pet cemetery in the Napa Valley, and that idea’s eventual unraveling into financial ruin. Morris doesn’t seem particularly interested in the details of the financial problems. Instead, McClure tells a long story of growing up in the Dakotas and how he buried his dog after it was hit by a “Model A.” That’s intercut with one of his “competitors,” the owner of a rendering plant, who seems absolutely incredulous that anyone would have any problem with what he does and gleefully tells stories about the local zoo sending him dead elephants and then denying that they did so. McClure says he was on the floor of a rendering plant once, and “it was like a nightmare, a dream of hell.”

The second half of the movie centers around the cemetery that the animals are moved to, “Bubbling Well Pet Cemetery.” It is owned and run by various members of the Harberts family, the father of which has started his own church that teaches that God loves animals and humans equally. His wife seems to think this is kind of silly, but knows his heart is in the right place. The business is primarily run by their two sons, who both left home and then came back for their own reasons. One is a former salesman and talks about organizing his pick-up runs at vet offices according to “success principles” and has a whole spiel about how he organizes all the awards he’s received for… something? His brother lives in a house on a hill overlooking the cemetery. At one point we just watch him sitting and listening to prog rock. He grows marijuana plants on his windowsill. Sometimes in the afternoons if no one’s around he takes his amp and electric guitar outside and plays above the pet cemetery.

The two halves of the movie are separated by a long monologue from an old lady, Florence Rasmussen, delivered from her front porch across the street from the first pet cemetery. Ebert once wrote that “William Faulkner or Mark Twain would have wept with joy to have created such words as fall from her lips.” She tells us the story of her life, then goes back and says, “wait, that’s not what happened” about most things. She seems proud and despairing at the same time.

I know that Gates of Heaven works regardless of whether you’re a pet person or not because the first time I watched it, I had never really had a pet other than a fish, and I loved it. This time, we recently lost one of our dogs that had slept in our bed every night, and I took very different things from some parts. We watch couples come to bury their beloved pets. One woman tells the story of her dog’s final days in great detail, only to be interrupted by her husband’s deep, resigned voice for the final word: “neutered.” You can’t write this stuff.

Morris’ documentaries tend to be based around interviews with his subjects, and for this purpose is known for inventing a machine called an “interro-tron.” This operates a bit like a teleprompter, but shows Morris’ face as he delivers his questions instead. In practice, what that means is that, instead of looking at an interviewer just off screen, the interview subjects are looking right down the lens of the camera. He doesn’t interrupt them, even as they struggle for words, sometimes finding the wrong ones. After the success of Gates of Heaven, Morris went on to direct many documentaries that are probably better known today, including The Thin Blue Line, about police corruption, A Brief History of Time, in which he interviews Stephen Hawking, and The Fog of War, about Vietnam-era Secretary of State Robert McNamara, for which he won his only Oscar to date. But this will always be my favorite.

One pet owner who comes to Bubbling Well tries to explain her feelings: “There’s your dog. Your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?” These are not questions that get grappled with in movies every day, and they’re made more special because they’re not delivered as knowing dialogue but by real people, living their lives and struggling for answers like the rest of us. And through getting that real, genuine perspective of other, well-intentioned people, be they owners of a rendering plant or the two old ladies we see at one point describing getting into a fight with each other about who loved their pet more, we can expand our empathy and think about larger topics outside of our own perspective. That is maybe the most valuable thing film can do as a medium.

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