Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Gates of Heaven (1978)

by on January 31, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue Feb 7 at 6:15* at the Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Errol Morris in-person
With “50 Years of the New York Film Festival” FSLC spearheads a chronological tour of the fest’s greatest hits. Errol Morris will be in attendance for an onstage Q&A.
When Gates of Heaven, Morris’s debut documentary about pet cemetery culture. was released in 1978, it launched the director’s idiosyncratic career. When the New York Film Festival screened the world premiere, Werner Herzog ate his shoe.


Roger Ebert, the film’s biggest champion, looks back on the movie 19 years later in The Chicago Sun-Times:

Gates of Heaven remains in a category by itself, unclassifiable, provocative, tantalizing. When I put it on my list of the 10 greatest films ever made, I was not joking; this 85-minute film about pet cemeteries has given me more to think about over the past 20 years than most of the other films I’ve seen…


When I am asked to lecture and show a film, I often bring Gates of Heaven. Afterward, the discussions invariably rage without end: Is he making fun of those people? Are people ridiculous for caring so much about animals? The film is a put-on, right? It can’t really be true?”



J. Hoberman, in a rumination on American kitsch for the Village Voice:

Blue Velvet notwithstanding, Morris’s 1978 Gates of Heaven is arguably the masterpiece of Americanarama, made nearly a decade before the trend coalesced. Certainly, for bottomline defamiliarizing weirdness, no film has ever surpassed this documentary account of two California pet cemeteries.
Mainly a succession of talking heads, Gates of Heaven constructs each frame as a sarcophagus all its own—the interviewees surrounded by totems ranging from The Wall Street Journal to a pair of bronzed baby shoes or a can of Coors, spilling their guts in a mélange of advertising clichés, talk show bromides, business school koans, and motivational slogans. Once the film moves to the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park (the proprietor assures bereaved clients that they will be reunited with their pets in the afterlife, while his own sons are buried alive in the family business), sentiment becomes even more awesomely reified: there are headstones carved with such devastating confessions as “I Knew Love—I Had This Dog.”
Morris’s conceptual rigor, combined with his blandly outré subject matter and stark emphasis on his interviewee’s iconic self-presentation, itself epitomizes the overall sense of alienation, displacement, and outlandish commodity fetishism that characterizes the Americanarama as a whole.


Speaking about its release to The Onion AV Club, Morris recounted:

When it was shown at the New York Film Festival, there was a newspaper strike in New York. So the movie wasn’t even reviewed by the major or even the minor New York papers. But we had a rough-cut screening at the Pacific Film Archive, and Wim Wenders was there, and when I asked him what he thought, he said, “Well, it’s really quite simple. It’s a masterpiece.” And that came as a complete shock. I mean, I liked the movie, but it hadn’t been clear how to put it together. We were editing in Emeryville, which is just south of Berkeley, in this one building where there were a lot of editors. It was next to a rendering factory.


The film did receive a little attention in New York, though. Tom Buckley of The New York Times did not approve:

The subject of this documentary by Errol Morris is a cemetery for pets. It was, apparently, originally established in Los Altos, south of San Francisco, but is forced to move to a more isolated site in the Napa Valley. One says ‘apparently’ because nothing is really explained.


Jonathan Rosenbaum counters, for the Chicago Reader:

Morris’s use of talking-head interviews initially appears cool and conventional, but there’s a lot more to it in terms of form and attitude than initially meets the eye, and the apparent cruelty of the deadpan satire gradually gives way to something more compassionate, as well as deeper and stranger.



Rumsey Taylor for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

The film is stylistically simplified, bereft of most any camera movement, consisting of people sitting and talking in straightforward compositions, each looking directly into the camera. (One subject is carefully seated beneath a portrait of a poodle, presumably deceased.) The film is edited, in Morris” trademark gesture, in order to establish parallels between separate monologues — each person in this film is present for different reasons (some are only incidentally tied to the premise), yet their voices (in editing, a unison) all seem to acknowledge an inherent human desperation for companionship, one uniquely analogized in the relationship with a pet.

The film contains no title or location credits (staple punctuations in most documentary films). There is confusion as to who is talking at times, though this omission seems purposefully distant. The emphasis is not on the person talking but what they are saying, and the transcendent relevance of their idiosyncratic speech. Gates of Heaven includes a variety of thought and philosophy, and fosters disparity in its reception. It is a documentary with subject and no argument, and is nonetheless deeply, deeply ruminative.



Michael Covino, writing for Film Quarterly, is similarly impressed:

Errol Morris’s documentary about pet cemeteries is not about pet cemeteries, nor is it a documentary so much as a document about mainstream America at the crossroads in the late seventies. It is one of the most original films I have seen in years and also the most insidious, accomplishing something I would have thought impossible: it takes mediocre and vacuous middle-class Americans and makes them look mediocre and vacuous. I do not mean this in a facile sense. Any director who attempts such a film is obviously walking a tightrope, and in every scene, in every shot, is in danger of losing his balance. Morris never does. The film’s project is not “exposing the pet cemetery racket,” but still less does it exploit the eccentricities of pet lovers. The film rejects the more obvious and tasteful alternative of falsely humanizing its characters, and in so doing gains in aesthetic force what it surrenders in phony warmth. Gates of Heaven is appallingly funny, and appalling.


Fernando F. Croce, for CinePassion:

“It often happens that a man is more humanely related to a cat or dog than to any human being” (Thoreau). But then again: “Pet owners are cowards without the courage to bite people themselves” (Strindberg). Viewed through Errol Morris’ blank-gaze lens, the “good, solid business enterprise” of pet cemeteries (“a need to be fulfilled”) suggests Kubrick discovering Mark Twain. A graveyard for critters is the brainchild of one Floyd McClure, who, on his wheelchair facing the camera, traces his “Kismet idea” back to his squashed childhood collie. On the other side is his nemesis, the rendering merchant who proposes that recycling horses and circus animals has roots in the Old Testament. The trail of evictions, lawsuits and exhumations builds to the image of two verdant squares in the middle of the desert, the U.S. flag flapping placidly over tiny tombstones and tiny coffins — the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, run by a wannabe impresario and his sons. People talk, clumsily and ardently. Some mourn the death of their pooches while recommending neutering, others declare canine loyalty as something unattainable by humans. One elderly woman sits on her doorway and, over the course of a rambling, remarkable monologue, lays out something like a life: “Boy, if I could only walk… And my son, if he was only better to me… They went to court. It was somebody else’s kid… Everybody loved that dog. I miss that little black kitten so much…” The framing (interviewees are posed against floral wallpaper and beneath portraits of poodles, in front of a wall of wheat crops or a panorama of cacti) is fastidious, funny, and saved from kitsch by the quietly seething emotions on display. Morris records them stilly, his structure pivots on rhyming-contrasting editing which weaves together a miniature frieze about the ways we desperately attempt to ward off loneliness and end up building shrines to it. “God is love; backwards it’s dog.” A mysterious cine-object, a cosmic statement, ultimately a chilling vision.



And from the Time Out Film Guide:

Is the canine after-life a concept sufficiently dear to the heart of California to form an exploitable basis for corporate capitalist credibility? Well, it may seem a dumb question, but at least two family concerns profiled in this winningly absurdist documentary think the answer is yes. For it’s the unpredictable market economy of pet cemeteries over which Morris’ subjects wax both lyrical and hymnal, as they affirm in endearingly ludicrous detail their earnest commitment to dead doggies and the dollar, and insistently hard-sell alternative routes through the eponymous portals. Morris respects the manic integrity of his interviewees, and handles his Great American Metaphors with the lightest of touches; incidentally winning a bet that saw Werner Herzog eat his shoe (having wagered that the film would never get made), he ultimately achieves a real treat of everyday surrealism.


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