Playing Saturday July 23 at 5:00 at the Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
When Gates of Heaven, a documentary about pet cemetery culture that was Errol Morris’s debut, was released in 1978, it launched the director’s idiosyncratic career. 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, writing in 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.
Roger Ebert, looking back on the movie 19 years later in The Chicago Sun-Times, wrote:
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?”
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:
Viewed through Errol Morris’ blank-gaze lens, the ‘good, solid business enterprise’ of pet cemeteries suggests Kubrick discovering Mark Twain. The framing [of interviewees] is fastidious, funny, and saved from kitsch by the quietly seething emotions on display.
And from The Time Out Film Guide:
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.