Gates of Heaven (Errol Morris, 1978)

It’d be far too easy to simply say that Morris is being purely objective in his documentary on those involved with a pair of pet cemeteries, because frankly it’s a lot more fun to debate whether he’s lampooning these bizarre people, or whether he’s being dead-serious in his depiction, or dare I say, sympathetic/empathetic.  I think the answer to that question depends entirely on the mindset of whoever is watching, and my mindset of the night was that of sympathy, so my answer of the night is the latter – sympathic/empathetic.  I took this film so seriously simply because of how serious these people were about building a pet cemetery, how enraged they were that pet corpses were heartlessly dug up by the masses when the first cemetery went under, and, quite simply, because of how much they clearly love animals (all of which facets of these peoples’ dead-seriousness are in and of themselves ripe to be satirized, which is why it’s easy to read “Gates of Heaven” as sarcastic).  These are some of the strangest people I’ve seen as the focus of a feature-length documentary, but as I said, they were so steadfast in their cause, so serious and so downright innocent in their conviction that their pets need and deserve respect in death and an appropriate final resting place, that I was able to push aside whatever snide, sarcastic thoughts I would’ve thought about these strange people otherwise and instead considered that innocence, and saw pure, almost child-like souls within these people.  Floyd McClure, the handicapped man in charge of the first cemetery the film focuses on, begins the film by simply describing how even in his youth, he wanted to create and run a pet cemetery.  Little insight is given into the other facets of this man’s life or past, just this one desire in regard to, of all things, a pet cemetery, but he talks about that one strange years-long goal with such conviction and devotion, sprinkled with clear respect for animals, that he’s immediately a sympathetic, likable figure.  As we meet some of the pet owners bidding farewell to their dearly departed, or an old lady singing a duet with her little doggie, it’s impossible to deny that they’re anything but normal, and the way they talk about their pets as if they were their own children will never not be strange, but nevertheless, that love for a pet is undeniable, and damned if that little eulogy the couple give with the cemetery administrator as they bury their dog isn’t moving.  The way they commiserate on the strange yet fascinating breed of the dog as if they’re dog experts plying their craft the way film historians would fondly discuss the art of cinema, and remembering the years of joy that dog brought, presented so matter-of-factly by Errol Morris…there’s just something so real about that, something I can’t describe in words, but merely silently appreciate.  Later, I got the vibe that the Harberts family, who run the cemetery the exhumed pets are moved to, aren’t quite as religiously obsessed with animals as the film’s previous subjects, but there’s still something just as bizarre yet real about them.  The way son Philip laments and eats his kishkes out about having to deal with dead animals on a daily basis, yet dutifully does it anyway, and the way his brother Danny laments his professional failures in life while waxing philosophical about no less than true love, is just so quirky, so subtly strange that it’s also subtly parallel to the kinds of things I would worry about and think about on a daily basis.  Though my interest started to wane as the focus shifted towards the fascinating yet ideologically bleak Harberts rather than the wonderfully eccentric yet pure-hearted people associated with McClure’s cemetery (even his nemesis, the owner of a rendering plant, is depicted as a more-or-less nice and matter-of-fact guy), the image of Danny playing his electric guitar outside, on a hill overlooking the impossibly green cemetery, and a long, silent montage of the some of the gravestones, are incredibly poignant, the ‘meanings’ of which I won’t go into, for it’s much more rewarding for the viewer to come up with his or her own meaning (and I haven’t quite come up with a ‘meaning’ yet…).  Everybody knows the adage of ‘man’s best friend’, and that the biggest selling point of a pet is the prospect of pure, unconditional love, the desire for which is clearly a key point of ‘Gates of Heaven’ – not just a film about late pets and their owners, but that instinct to love and be loved that is likely inherent in all species.  What I think made this film so poignant and moving in that regard is that that pure, unconditional love and innocence was present not just in the animals living and dead, but in their peculiar and caricature-ish owners.

And it made Werner Herzog eat his shoe, so it’s gotta be some kind of minor masterpiece by default, no?


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