Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven (1978) is a fascinating documentary. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it, and it certainly kept my interest throughout. It’s more laid-back and objective than other documentaries that I have seen. There’s one scene in particular where a woman is talking about her life. The scene goes on for a while, and is seemingly irrelevant to the film. Looking back after seeing the film, however, it’s obvious to me that it was that scene that Morris used to transition into different themes and feelings in the film.
It’s interesting how the film starts with one story and ends with a completely different story as well. These two stories share many similarities and, at the same time, are very different. They’re not necessarily opposing views, but the different parties definitely go about doing the same thing different ways. The first pet cemetery, for example, is run by a man who is very much emotionally invested in the practice for various reasons. Conversely, people who are seemingly more pragmatic in nature run the second pet cemetery.
Gates of Heaven starts off with the story of a man, Floyd McClure, whose goal in life is to start and run a pet cemetery. Because of various problems that come up, McClure’s cemetery fails. The story then shifts and follows another pet cemetery, run by John Harberts, which is far more successful.
From what I’ve learned of documentary films, so far I would say that Gates of Haven is a good representation of a non-fictional documentary with some elements of cinéma-vérité as well. The filmmakers aren’t shown, yet it’s clear that they’ve been working. It’s also very real in the way the subjects don’t seem forced at all. It looks and sounds very natural and real, which is what I love the most about this film.
As I said earlier, there are clearly two different stories, but they share similarities. The way that these two stories are put together bookends the film nicely. Floyd’s pet cemetery was born and died in a sense, while the other is still in operation to this day.
At its core I would say that Gates of Heaven is about mortality, both with animals and, to a lesser extent, humankind as well. The woman I referred to earlier is an example of how widespread this theme is, having some prevalent things to say in regards to that particular subject.
Along those same lines, the question was raised at the end of the film about whether or not animals have souls, which is a fascinating subject to think about. Earlier on in the film, one couple talked about their dog and how, while not being able to communicate with them verbally, was seemingly expressive and cognizant of its surroundings. The man told a story of a previous Christmas in which their dog found and opened its presents all on its own. Is this a case of an animal having human-like qualities or smelling a dog treat? It’s something to think about at least. Near the end of the film, one woman said this about her dog:
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? There’s your spirit. There it is. [. . .] I think I’m right. In fact, I almost know I’m right. I haven’t thought about the idea that animals do in fact have souls very much before now. But in my mind that was one of the best cases that I’ve heard for it yet.
The people interviewed throughout the film were interesting to listen to and were very real, which is a credit to Errol Morris. It was great to see so many differing perspectives represented in the film. I especially liked the early interviews with Floyd McClure and the guy from the rendering facility. They’re both two entirely different people. Floyd is clearly a more sensitive person, especially when it comes to harming animals, while the other guy just doesn’t seem to get why people would care about animals that much. It’s a baffling concept to him. It was also cool how, at times, it almost seemed like they were talking together.
One interview, later on in the film, that I really enjoyed watching was the one with the older couple who have just lost their dog, York. They’re so eloquent in their simplicity. They cared about their pet deeply and, at the same time, aren’t focused on themselves. When talking about how York died, the woman says:
I’m telling you, if I never tell anything else again, please watch your dogs for heartworm. It’s carried by mosquitoes just like malaria. And you don’t know.
I also really enjoyed thinking about their relationship, and wonder if their dog’s death actually ended up strengthening it. The woman goes on to talk about her belief that they will see their dog in the afterlife: “Well I think we’ll all be together again. I think we’re going to live pretty much just like we do here”, to which the man responds, “She’s got me believing that now, I never believed in it before.” It’s nice to see how a tragic event like has the potential to do so much good for those involved. We can learn a lot from this couple…or at least hypothesize about them.
The actually filming of Gates of Heaven was quite good. For the most part it was very objective, not detracting from what the subjects had to say. As I mentioned before, I was amazed at how long the camera stayed on certain people. Some of what they were saying seemed unneeded, but there are so many gems to be found as well. Cutting it up and butchering it would have been a travesty in my opinion. On that same note, I don’t remember the camera ever moving when people were being interviewed; it was always static, which adds to the sense of objectiveness, which I think was a great choice on Morris’ part. The camera does move when illustrating what someone is talking about; a diagram of the pet cemetery, for example, and when scenes are shown that accentuate what’s going on. I also really liked how the pictures of certain pets were shown. They were usually in the center of a section of grass. Not only does it have an aesthetic quality to it, but if the pictures were shown by themselves it would have looked impersonal. And for the most part the film editing, done by Errol Morris himself, was noticeable, but not in a distracting way. It does feel odd to me, however, when documentarians cut back to a previous interview later on in their films. I understand why this is done, and I would probably end up doing the same thing myself if I were working on the project, but it just doesn’t seem right in a continuity sort of way. Everything else is progressive, but the actual interviews aren’t.
The production of Gates of Haven worked well. It was shot in color, which looked great. While I love a good B&W film, I don’t think that Gates of Heaven would have fared well in that medium; the grass needs to be green in this film. It was also shot in full screen as well. I also liked the locations that were used throughout the film. The latter interviews with Phil Harberts (the communications major in the family) when he’s shown in his office really help to describe his character. At one point he even talks about what his office means to him, with all of the awards and things that are there. He’s clearly proud of their accomplishments.
Aside from a few studio shots that were used for illustration purposes, everything seemed to be shot on location. There were some interviews done indoors, like the one I just mentioned, but they were the real deal, not in studio settings. The lighting seemed to be pretty natural, especially in the outdoors scenes.
There really wasn’t much music in the film, except for what Dan Harberts played, which sounded quite natural and belonged there. I think that the lack of music in Gates of Heaven greatly enhances the film. Rather than ramping up the emotional level with music, Morris has instead chosen to leave well enough alone and let the audience see what the subject is feeling and come to their own conclusions. While I do love a good film score, it just wouldn’t have been the same film with one.
The sound was also used well. There’s one scene in particular where I noticed it. Near the beginning of the film, a newspaper article is shown which reads, “They’re digging up dead pets, old griefs on Peninsula”. It’s a still image with no sound. It then cuts to the jarring sound of machinery digging up the graves. What a powerful jump.
I really liked Gates of Heaven, so I’ll be giving it a definite “A” grade. It’s fascinating documentary that focuses on something that I wouldn’t have bothered learning about otherwise. At the same time, Morris deals with many different themes and is very objective about the whole process; we’re given more questions than answers in this film.
On a more interesting note, I read that Gates of Heaven was the result of a bet between German director Werner Herzog and Errol Morris. Herzog bet that if Morris directed a documentary about pet cemeteries that he would eat his own shoe. He did, and the event is documented in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, directed by Les Blank.
(Written for my documentary of film class)
Filed under: Film Reviews Tagged: | animals, art, cinema-verite, class, critique, culture, dan harberts, death, documentary, dvd, errol morris, film, film class, floyd mclure, john harberts, Life, mortality, objective, pet cemetary, phil harberts, review, subjective