Gates of Heaven (1978)

Directed by Errol Morris

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Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris’ first documentary, was destined for obscurity until Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel chose to champion the film, with Ebert putting it as one of his top ten films of all time.

Like his follow up, Vernon, Florida, this documentary is composed of a series of interviews with recurring characters, stitched together without any narration or obvious intervention on the part of Morris.  The story about a pet cemetery in Northern California is told only by the people who lived it.  They have several different perspectives, some which come into conflict, and sometimes they go on tangents that have nothing to do with the story at all.

What we’re left with is a series of oddball characters who feel all the more relatable in their eccentricities.  If there’s a common theme, at least at first, it’s the love of a person for their pet, but even that is abandoned during parts of the film.  We meet people for whom we can empathize and occasionally pity.

We start with Floyd McClure, a disabled man who decided to create a pet cemetery in Los Altos, California.  He did this out of the goodness of heart, and because he doesn’t have a solid financial plan to back it up, the cemetery is forced to close and 450 animal graves dug up.  We chronicle the beginning and end of his personal project before transitioning up north to Napa where the cemetery moves.

In the latter half of the film we meet the Harberts who run the cemetery.  They are a family with two adults sons, both of whom move back home to help run the family business.  The father, Cal, speaks of the cemetery as a business, thus explaining its financial viability.  He’s a stern, confident man unlike Floyd.  Cal is the type of man who speaks with conviction and would likely succeed on Wall Street.  He’s the type of guy who eats people like Floyd alive.

Cal has a strange way of speaking as well.  Where Floyd felt a deep connection to the pets in his cemetery and the people he did business with, Cal instead speaks about the “pet explosion,” identifying the increasing number of women in the workforce as a reason there are so many pets.  “I’d say the pill is more responsible for the pet explosion than any other factor,” he says before adding that, “nature can’t be put aside, so when the young woman comes home, she has to have something to fondle, something to mother, something to love.”

Compare that to Floyd who said things like, “when I turn my back, I don’t know you, not truly.  When I turn my back on my dog, I know he’s back there, he’s my little friend.”

Cal’s two sons are Dan and Phil, and it’s hard to see any resemblance between the two.  Dan is the quiet, sensitive, reflective type.  His voice is soft, and he speaks mostly of heartbreak, saying “nothing lasts forever,” and “I think a broken heart is something everyone should experience.”

Phil is the older brother, one who moved back to Napa with his wife and children after a career in sales in Salt Lake City.  Burned out, Phil speaks about life like he’s writing a self-help book.  He discusses his career success with pride but then discusses a renewed focus on enjoying the present.  Still, he speaks about it as if it’s another goal to hit, another quota.  He’s the jock, and Dan is the artist.

These interviews with the brothers only occasionally tie back to the pet cemetery.  For the most part Morris lets them speak, filling in the silence without any of his help.  They discuss life philosophies while the manner in which they speak reflects a certain amount of pride, sadness, envy and determination.

You learn the most about these characters by how they present themselves and occasionally by what they say.  To put it another way, I doubt any of these subjects knew what they were giving Morris as they spoke.  In Q&A discussion regarding this film earlier this decade, Morris described his excitement over the unpredictability of the interviews he conducts.

He follows the tangents of the people he talks to, hardly trying to keep them on track.  At first it may seem a strange detour from the film, but this isn’t really a story about pet cemeteries, at least not exclusively.  Halfway through the film Morris talks to Florence Rasmussen.  She delivers a five minute long monologue, taking her time as she talks, about her son, her cat, her son’s “tramp” of an ex-wife, a car that passes by, etc.

She talks about how she once bought a car for her son who, as an adult, brought her out here to California but whom she thinks has forgotten about her.  Frustrations with her son move on to frustrations with his ex-wife before she pivots to her old cat, Skippy.  “You miss your pets like you do your family,” without noticing the contradiction in how she talked about her cat versus her son.

In an earlier moment, two women are interviewed who each had a dog buried at the cemetery in Los Altos before it was moved.  One of them recounts the anger of the other as she complained about the digging up of her dog.  The first woman interviewed takes time to attack the way the other complained, what she wore to the cemetery, how much of a scene she made, before suggesting that this other woman didn’t pay nearly as much as she did for her plot.

Other interviewees will talk more specifically about their pets and the grieving process.  They say things both profound and silly, sometimes at once.  Their pontifications and theories are quite simple and childlike, but this only adds to the profundity of what they say, as if it’s been obvious all along.

Gates of Heaven will inevitably bring up a lot of questions and memories for the viewer as it is watched.  It’s a slow-moving story, quiet and somber, which allows for plenty of reflection if only because of that slow pace.  You might conjure up similar thoughts were you to stare at pleasant hillside for 80 minutes.

This is not a very sensational documentary.  It’s not Blackfish or Making a Murderer or Bowling for Columbine or Supersize Me.  It tests your patience, but it’s the vegetable to Making a Murderer’s dessert.

This is a movie everyone should see, if only because it’s worth the thought exercise and the reflection.  You might think about the pets who have passed through your own life or about life in general.  You might think about what happens when life ends or where these characters are now if they’re still around.

The pace of life presented in Gates of Heaven is so slow that it’s hard to believe these characters aren’t still living in this same moment, but forty years later many of them might have themselves passed on or at least moved on to whatever life brought their way.  In their own way, each person interviewed feels like they have the answers, and none of the answers they’ve come to are the same.

Up Next: Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Thin Blue Line (1988), Stalag 17 (1953)

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