Gates of Heaven

I first saw Gates of Heaven in a class about directors and their first feature films. We would watch their first film, and then a famous film, and compare their style. I had never heard of Errol Morris before, nor his 1978 movie about a pet cemetary. Over three days, I watched Gates of Heaven, The Thin Blue Line, and Standard Operating Procedure. I fell in love. I really like documentaries. I always dreamed of making them, even though I'm not a director. Nothing is more interesting or more strange than real life. Errol Morris knows this. He is fascinated by his subjects. His shots are long and they linger on as the people continue to speak. It's wonderful.

The issue with Gates of Heaven, it always seems, is that no one can decide if it's made as a satire (is he making fun of these people?) or in seriousness. The documentary is, for those who haven't seen it, not really about pet cemeteries at all. It starts out talking to various people involved in them - Floyd McClure recalls how the death of his collie inspired him to want to find a respectful way to mourn our pets. He talks about how he knows that dogs are our friends, and are loyal, not like people. Morris interviews McClure's enemy who runs a rendering plant ("the floors of hell!") that disposes of animals. Then, it starts to dissolve. There are long scenes of a woman making her dog sing. Florence Rasmussen spends at least 20 minutes talking about her life and her grandson and his job hauling sand - no. Not hauling sand. In the office, that office job that he took. And she is going to make him pay for that car she helped finance.  The people go on and on until they run out things to say.

This is why people wonder if it's a joke or not. Does Errol Morris find them funny or interesting? I think it's both. There are moments of sadness and real emotion, and moments that are very funny. There is this scene that Ebert explains beautifully, writing, "In one remarkable unbroken shot, a grieving pet owner delivers a long speech about the death of her dog and the measures she recommends to other pet owners, and when she gets to the very last word, her husband interrupts to pronounce it with bleak finality: ``Neutered.'' This is the kind of perfect moment that cannot be written and cannot be anticipated; it can only be filmed as it happens". (The Great Movies, 187-188). This is one of my favorite scenes in the movie. It's so perfect. Nothing is more strange than how other people act. Just thinking about it makes me laugh. Even still, there are many sad moments - showing the graves of the pets, with so many genuine words of love and mourning.

I think it may be hard for people who haven't had pets to understand the real sadness that these people feel. Ebert mentions in his review that he's taught this movie in classes, and people always wonder if people can really care for their animals that much. Ebert's review is dated 1997, which I don't remember very well. But I do feel safe saying that people have very different relationships with their pets now than they did then. We take them to spas and hotels, we cook them their own special foods, we buy them coats and goggles, we share our holidays with them, wrapping them Christmas presents of their own.

I have always had dogs, and they have always been like another family member. My family and I spoil them. I actually thought I would have a hard time watching this movie again. Over the summer, one of my dogs, Sophie, died suddenly after a freak accident. She was seven. It's still hard for me to write about, so I have a blog post here if you'd like to read about it (I talk about her whole life, and there are pictures of her cute self). She was at the emergency vet for a little while, and the way my parents and I conducted our lives was not much different from how we acted when family members have been in the hospital. We were up at all hours calling to check on her. We couldn't sleep. We cried unexpectedly all the time. I never lost a dog unexpectedly before, and it's harder than I ever could have imagined. Listening to McClure talk about when his collie was hit by a car was harder this time, because I understood. I understood, on a deeper level, the need to mourn your pet. It's not that I was never affected by the loss of a pet before - but when one dies of old age, you can have time to prepare. You understand they lived a long and full life. When they are taken from you suddenly, you do need to grieve. You want your pet to be treated humanely and lovingly. You want an urn you can keep safe, or a grave you can visit. It's hard for me to understand...not understanding the pet lovers in this film, I guess is what I'm trying to say.

I hate to write about sad things like that, but it's hard to avoid it when you talk about a movie like this. It's not  a sad movie, per say. Like I said, I thought I would have a hard time watching it, but I just felt sort of content. Like, "Here are other people who feel like I do," for some parts of it, and for other parts, I am able to laugh at all of the various antics. Especially at "Neutered." It just reminds me of my own experiences, and I guess I felt the need to add my own personal opinons to the question of what this movie is really about.

I still don't know the answer. There's such a strange combination of watching people act weird, and the pet cemetery. For me, I am fascinated by the strangeness, and moved by the stories of people's pets. I never really know how to feel about this movie. It's so unique. It's the movie that gave Errol Morris a career.

If you like documentary at all, you need need need to watch this. Morris is one of the most incredible people working with this genre right now, if not the most. He treats documentary like a real art form, not like a show for Discovery Channel. If you watch this movie, look at how the people are framed when they are interviewed. Most of them are looking directly into the lens of the camera - this is new and rare. He did this by mushing his face right up against the lens when talking to them so they would be forced to look into lens while they spoke. Later, he invented a machine to interview people - the Interratron. It is basically a teleprompter that displays Morris' face so that people cannot look away. First person documentary. Incredible.

I should probably not write quite so much about Errol Morris, but I have a very real obsession with him and his films. Let me know if you go out and watch this, I'm curious what other people think about this strange film and Morris' unique style. The movie is currently streaming on Netflix, and you can rent many of his movies on Amazon. I think he is a genius, and he's one of my favorite filmmakers. I could talk about him for hours, but I'll spare you :)

Have any of you seen Gates of Heaven? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Ebert's Great Movie essay on Gates of Heaven
Errol Morris talk about eye contact
Ebert interviews Errol Morris 

The General

Floating Weeds