Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven
Directed By: Errol Morris

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)

Attack of the Meme

You can blame this on MovieMan0283 at The Dancing Image for starting this up and T.S. at Screen Savour for tagging me. 😉 So before we get to the goodies, here are the rules for the latest Internet fad:

1. You must not have seen any of the films on your list, either in theatres or on video.

2. The films on your list should not be available on Netflix (this will be the criteria for “availability” since it’s too hard to track down what’s available where, to who, etc.)

3. You can organize the list however you want, in themed couplets like Piper’s original list, or just as twelve semi-random films.

4. You must credit and link to my blog, Piper’s blog for getting the original ball rolling, and for good measure, the guys at Out 1 for planting the seed.

5. Tag five people to keep the meme going.

6. If you’re too lazy to follow all of these rules, but still want to participate, you have my blessing (the more the merrier). Except for the rule about linking to my blog. That you still have to obey.

This time around I decided to break the films up into pairs of two, mostly by director. At first I thought that this would be too hard to accomplish (while abiding by the rules, that is), but then I remembered that there were quite a few Italian films that I couldn’t find on NetFlix. So doing some backtracking, and aided by a few bouts of genius, let’s get this party started:

Theme: Vittorio De Sica (Director)
Films: Shoe Shine / The Gold of Naples

Theme: Roberto Rossellini (Director) / Ingrid Bergman (Actor)
Films: Stromboli / Journey to Italy

Theme: Luchino Visconti (Director)
Films: Senso / Days of Glory

Theme: Abel Gance (Director)
Films: Napoleon / I Accuse

Theme: Miscellaneous
Films: Chaplin / Sleuth (1972)


Theme: Hitchcock Films that NEED to Be More Available
Films: Notorious / Rebecca

Honorable Mention:
War of the Buttons (Why is this gem not on DVD yet?)

Obligatory Tags:

Movie Reviews By CaptainD

The Kinetoscope Parlor

YDKS Movies

Celluloid Fire


(EDIT: Just found out that this is my 100th post. Yay)

Sink the Titanic

According to Box Office Mojo, The Dark Knight is $125,445,189 away from becoming the largest grossing film domestically.

Get out there and watch it again.

The Reviews Are In

The Unseen DVD Blog-a-Thon will be over in half an hour. I would like to thank everyone that submitted their reviews; I’ve really enjoyed reading them and learning what to watch and what to avoid.  🙂

The turnout was much better than I had initially anticipated. Great work all! And again, if I forgot about a review that you sent in, please let me know and I’ll add it in later.

In Chronological Order:

Name: Nick
Site: Demented Door Knob
Entry: Nobody Knows

Name: Adam
Site: Counting the Hours
Entry: Batman: The Movie

Name: Connor
Site: Celluloid Fire
Entry: Zodiac

Name: Leeny
Site: 353 Review
Entry: Surf Nazis Must Die / Psycho Beach Party

Name: Tommy
Site: Pluck You Too
Entry: Steel Magnolias

Name: Scott
Site: He Shot Cyrus
Entry: Fatal Attraction

Name: Leeny
Site: 353 Review
Entry: Ninja Mission / Earth vs. The Spider

Name: Connor
Site: Celluloid Fire
Entry: Straw Dogs

Name: MovieMan0283
Site: The Dancing Image
Entry: Real American Hero: Buford Pusser Story

Name: Joseph
Site: Cinexcellence
Entry: Cutthroat Island

Name: Shannon
Site: Movie Moxie
Entry: Legionnaire

Unseen DVD: Cutthroat Island

Cutthroat Island
Directed By: Renny Harlin
Starring: Genna Davis / Matthew Modine / Frank Langella
Film Rating:
Experience Rating:

This is my entry to the Unseen DVD Blog-a-Thon. I was introduced to John Debney’s score by Phillip a while ago, and really liked. Shortly afterwards, I started seeing the DVD in the WalMart $5 bin all the time, so I’ve been interested in seeing this for quite some time. I’d always heard that it wasn’t that great, so I never took the plunge until now. After I announced the Blog-a-Thon, I was perusing the local library’s DVD selection and happened upon Cutthroat Island, which I was planning on picking up at WalMart shortly after. So not only do I find the perfect film to watch / review, but I get to save money as well. Life can’t get much better than that for a film fan. 🙂

As you can see, I’ve rated Cutthroat Island two ways: Film and experience. Objectively, as a film, it really wasn’t that great of a film. But as a subjective experience, I was unknowlingly in the mood for a campy swashbuclking explosion-filled piratical film. I really had a lot of fun watching this, especially at the expense of the film itself. The dialogue was corny, the special effects weren’t, and the cast itself: Lots of fun. 🙂

It was a weird experience. As the film started I remember thinking that the music was awesome, cool intro credits, and then it just wasn’t connecting with me. But about 15-20 minutes into the film, I just started…having fun. I mean, how is it possible to take Genna Davis as a pirate seriously? (Especially after watching Thelma & Louise recently, with Davis playing the former) And if Matthew Modine wasn’t trying to channel Cary Elwes, that would be a surprise to me.

And I have to take a moment to say that Frank Langella was great as Dawg, the badder pirate. (‘Cause they’re all bad, really) One look at him and I thought that he would make a good Dracula. Huh. Unlike other similar villians, he actually made some smart decisions. He still suffered from the monologue of death, but you can’t have everything.

I’ve never seen to many explosions in a pirate film before…nor so much innuendo. I wouldn’t be surprised if Michael Bay cast Megan Fox in the lead role and did a remake of this. I’d watch…maybe,

One thing that I ADORE about Cutthroat Island: When they’re following the map near the end of the film they actually counted their paces out loud! How cool is that??

I guess I never got around to typing a synopsis of the story. Here goes: There are lots of people (pirates included) that want to find the treasure on Cutthroat Island.

Top 10 Guilty Pleasures…

…movies that I like, but probably shouldn’t.

In descending order according to their IMDb rankings:

The Master of Disguise

Honestly, I don’t know WHY I like this one.

Kung Pow! Enter the First

It’s just a lot of Oedekerk-y (Yes, I had to copy/paste that name) fun.

Ang Lee’s Hulk

Yes, I definitely prefer this over The Incredible Hulk. Better casting, story, and direction. I won’t go into too much detail, though. I’m wanting to do a more in-depth review at some point down the road.

Lady in the Water

(Got tired of the usual poster) Again, I’m wanting to write up a review for this as well. But I really enjoyed watching this one. Fun and intriguing.

Intolerable Cruelty

What can I say? It’s a quirky romantic comedy from the Coen Bros. You can read my review here.


It’s a Weird Al film starring Michael Richards and a mop. Watch it already! There are just TOO many clips that I could show. But this one is a personal favorite:

Cop Land

People probably do like this one, but it deserves the plug. 🙂

Cannibal: The Musical

Yeah, definitely a guilty pleasure. A college film from Tery Parker and Matt Stone? Count me in.

The Adventures of Milo & Otis

Pugs are cute.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong

I get a lot of flack for preferring this to the original. What can I say? It blew me away. Sure it isn’t perfect, but neither is the original.

This post was for the Guilty Pleasures Blog-a-Thon at Invasion of the B Movies.

It’s ALMOST Over

That’s right, folks. The Unseen DVD Blog-a-Thon concludes this Sunday, August 17th. Any submissions received before 12:00 AM EST the following day will be posted. You can read the first batch of reviews here to get a feel for what’s expected…not much 🙂

Get out there and find a DVD that you haven’t seen…but might.

NetFlix Update No. 7

1. Umberto D (Dir. Vittorio De Sica)

Why Did You Pick That?

Still continuing on my classic Italian kick. And I’m especially looking forward to watching this one because I loved De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief very much.
2. Germany Year Zero (Dir. Roberto Rossellini)

Why Did You Pick That?

Same as above…again. 🙂 I’m thinking I’ll have to write up a massive response to Italian cinema eventually and break it up into different posts over time. I’ve found that I really dig neo-realism.
3. Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Why Did You Pick That?

I’m watching this for the LAMB MoTM. But it’s also a good excuse to watch more Miyazaki. I believe the only other film of his that I watched was Howl’s Moving Castle (and part of Spirited Away)

Appaloosa Preview

(Watch it in higher quality at Film School Rejects.They also have images from the film posted)

The Killers (1946)

The Killers (1946)
Directed By: Robert Siodmak
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien

Femme Fatale…√
Dutch Angles…√

The Killers definitely fits well within the film noir genre. The story is convoluted, but was surprisingly easy to follow. Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) works for an insurance company and is sent to look into the death of a man who was killed by two unknown gunmen. The Killers, based off of Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same name, takes us on a suspenseful, intriguing murder mystery. It’s told mostly through the aid of flashbacks, and I have to wonder if the creators of the film were inspired by Citizen Kane. I love the way we’re dropped into the middle of the story and left to fill in the blanks. J.J. Abrams would have loved this film. 🙂

Burt Lancaster stars in his screen debut as The Swede, one of the main characters. I caught the end of Field of Dreams on TV the other night, which was his final film, so I find it fitfully ironic that I watched The Killers shortly after. Lancaster was by no means perfect in The Killers, but as his first role, he did a good job. He really pulls through with his raw emotionality in certain scenes.

And Ava Gardner is great as femme fatale Kitty Collins. She really brings a lot to her character. As a noir film I was pleasantly surprised at how the characters in the film had that rough and tough personality that we’re used to in the genre, but their sensitive, more fragile sides are also shown in different scenes as well. The Killers truly is a character driven story and it’s what makes it a great film. It’s about people that we learn to care about over time and we want to know the outcome. That said, I would have liked to see more motivation and development for certain characters.

The Killers also has some very impressive cinematography from Elwood Bredell. The overall atmosphere fits throughout the film, both light and dark. I really liked what he did with the opening title sequence. It starts with two characters driving in a car. Cut to a town street late at night with the credits. Part way through the credits the two mean walk towards the camera with some awesome lighting and rising tension. The following scene where the killing takes place is an amazing piece of camerawork and lighting. You can read Rick’s thoughts on the scene and watch the clip HERE. (Be warned that it does contain spoilers) There’s another scene involving a heist that is almost as good.

It really is a great film. At times it seems to think it’s more suspenseful than it really is, but dangit I was hooked. I was invested in the characters and generally interested in the story as a whole.

This review was written for…