Gates of Heaven came out of left field in 1978 to initiate a new sub-genre of creative documentaries. Errol Morris' disarmingly modest film essay on the owners and customers of California pet cemeteries is a satirical look at what appear to be some pathetically shallow lives. Its aim is actually much farther. The tone is mordantly funny but also despairing, and the film has a profundity far beyond its own scope. Critics heaped praise upon it, changing forever the role of the documentary.
Morris' camera merely records the testimony of a number of people, all of whom appear to welcome the idea of getting their stories out. They also place their full trust in the filmmaker in a way that has disappeared in the intervening years. We've all seen too many 60 Minutes ambushes and 'reality' manglings of interview material to trust what a filmmaker might do with our filmed testimony. We would rather be grilled on a witness stand by a high-priced lawyer than bare our souls for some hotshot documentarian to make fools of us 'out of context.'
The first section juxtaposes two entrepreneurs. One wheelchair-bound man defensively explains his motivations behind establishing the Foothill Pet Cemetery, a business that failed because, as he explains, he put 'heart' above 'money.' He goes on and on about the need for people to have a place to bury the pets that mean so much to them. No matter how silly his opinions about the significance of pets become, we know he's 100% sincere. When he alludes to a messy bankruptcy and even criminal proceedings, we can't help but feel that he's a nice fellow who's been made into a fall guy.
He's contrasted with the owner of a rendering factory, a self-acknowledged 'disgusting' business that recycles dead animals and livestock for tallow and whatever else can be gleaned. This guy dismisses the idea of burying animals with sentimental honors and talks entirely pragmatically about grabbing all the dead horses he can find, along with pets, circus animals, whatever. He assures us that horse owners call him right away, assuring us that rotting horses become rather unsightly in just a few hours!
The clash of these two attitudes doesn't need hyping; our incredulity soon gives way to realizations that are a lot more than just funny. This is heart versus commerce at the most basic level, as Morris' interviewees talk right into the camera with a complete lack of guile. Morris shows his honesty by not editing his subjects or using camera tricks to show them up. If they seem foolish, it's only because they reveal their true natures, the stories they really want to tell.
The people who bury their pets are an odd lot of uncomplicated folk who probably seem shallow only because they aren't used to bearing their souls to a camera. We're shown a dog that yowls when prompted to please its master with 'singing.' But most of the adored pets are dead and seen only in photos and paintings cherished by the old ladies and couples who mourn them. Some people go to extremes to explain how human their dog or cat was, and it is pathetic to realize how the pets are used to fill emotional gaps, to compensate for loneliness. How could they just throw them into the trash when they die? One woman complains about the conspicuous wealth of another visitor to the pet cemetery. Another gives a long and heartbreaking talk that compares her ingrate of a son unfavorably with her late pet. It never left or took her money, as he does.
The testimony stresses how pets are more reliable than people as trustworthy and faithful companions. The man who lost the first cemetery would rather do without people at all, if he could manage. The sense of isolation expressed by these people is tragic.
Gates of Heaven turns more critical (or we turn more critical) when the Foothill Pet Cemetery is moved to a new location, to become the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. It is the brainchild of an older man who blames birth control for the new investment in pets: With no kids, women need something to cuddle, you see. From the testimony of his clients and sons we discover that the new park is a going concern because it has been incorporated as some kind of tax-free church, a faith that extends God's grace to his four-legged creations. The man's sons are patronizingly smug about the park's services, from the idea of 'themed' parts of the cemetery to "free burials for police dogs - if killed in the line of duty". One son is an aimless rock musician who has found his calling in planting pets, and lives in a shack on the property. The other is an ex- insurance salesman with a hatefully self-serving opinion about everything. He talks from his poolside about the greater good to be found in pursuing the important things in life, like his new Mercedes car.
Somehow, through this simple format, Errol Morris' film seems to expand in its implications, to show us the imminent downfall of American culture ... is the greater part of our society this devoid of values and cut off from meaningful human contact? Are businesses this venal? I certainly hope not.
MGM's DVD of Gates of Heaven is a bright and sharp transfer of a show that consists of mostly talking head medium shots, nicely framed and photographed. The audio is clear. There are no extras, only promos for other MGM docu- oriented DVDs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gates of Heaven rates: