“Communication between one human being and another is tenuous. When one of those human beings is dead, more tenuous. But what happens when one of those human beings is a dog AND is dead? Communication very, very tenuous. At best.” – Errol Morris, Criterion interview
To update a quote from Seneca with a touch of broken-hearted pet cemetery owner Floyd McClure, kismet is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. In the case of Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris wasn’t prepared in a traditional technical sense to capture this movie but his mind was already a fertile plot of curiosity and his disposition given to obsession and tenacity. The decision to get footage of the exhumation of a bankrupt pet cemetery led him to McClure which led him to a different, prosperous pet cemetery and to a whole host of characters along the way. Any of these people may or may not have been discovered by another documentarian or journalist, but only Morris had the insight or patience to record their answers they reached their full depths of profundity or absurdity (often both).
In making this, his first film, Morris eschewed the methods of direct cinema that supposedly hid the intentions of the filmmaker and arrived at sacred truths. Instead Morris immediately announces his new approach from the first frame – a wide shot of his first interview subject, sitting calmly under a tree, very much posed for a portrait. Morris dispenses with the theater of objectivity in vogue at the time and puts that energy into creating spaces for his subjects. The interviewees occupy cozy Academy-ratio frames populated with objects that suggest the speaker’s personality and idiosyncrasies before they even speak a word. Morris lets his subjects fill these space with their stories, hopes and disappointments. He lets them talk and when we see these spaces stitched together it creates a new platform from which we can see the heartbreaking ridiculousness of the earthly concerns, contemplate the higher philosophies and appreciate the ways in which the two blend together.
The best place to contemplate Heaven may be Limbo, and the Gates of Heaven creates just such an intermediate space for this kind of brooding.
A decent synopsis of Gates of Heaven requires either being glib (Dead animals, sad people.) or transcribing every interview for analysis, but in keeping with this essay’s theme, here is something in between. The film contains two halves with an impromptu monologue balanced in the middle. This subject, an elderly woman named Florence Rasmussen, provides the clearest primer on Morris’s MO. In a single take from her front doorway she muses – uninterrupted, save an unexpected and strangely well-timed squeal of car tires off-camera – on the demise of McClure’s cemetery, the loss of her own pet, and her relationship with her ne’er-do-well son.
How to react to such candor? She’s marvelously inconsistent in her words while maintaining a sort of internal consistency all the same. It’s hard to take her entirely seriously. Laughter seems cruel, but so does pity. Morris’s static camera and long takes remind us that both responses are possible to mix with respect. Ignoring or interrupting such words would be the cruelest response of all, especially as Rasmussen herself invites both laughter and pity with her words. Morris doesn’t turn any of her words into punchlines even while he’s clearly aware of the oddness of them.
Once McClure’s dream of the perfect pet cemetery is thoroughly decimated, Morris leaves him and follows the exhumed pet corpses to a more successful venture in animal interment, the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. Run by Cal Harberts and his sons Danny and Philip, it appears we’ve found an unqualified success to contrast with the failure in the first half. Floyd McClure prioritized the rights of pet corpses in the face of economic suggestions (like burying several pets in single grave) and went bankrupt for his efforts. The pragmatic Cal has found a balance in the recognition of dead animals as beloved remains and cash opportunities in equal parts without resorting to crude measures. He’s able to fund his respect for pet owners with acute business sense.
Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park on the whole is a success, but its parts are quite familiar with failure. Danny, the younger son, dropped out of college and still harbors frustrated dreams of being a musician. Phillip is the elder but finds himself third in command after washing out as an insurance salesman in another city. Danny spends his downtime growing weed and playing guitar on the lonely hills surrounding the cemetery. Phillip fills his office with sales trophies and contemplates ways to expand the business to nearby Los Angeles. Danny speaks of the importance of heartbreak. Phillips always talks like he’s just walked out of a motivational seminar.
What does it mean that Cal appears to be a reconciliation of the differences between his sons? And how do their differences inform the contrasting halves of the movie? This is the kind of brainbender Gates of Heaven creates without explicitly answering. The structure alone suggests a gap where there should be some sort of omnicient Cal Harberts connecting McClure’s pet cemetery and the one at Bubbling Wells.
Gates of Heaven portrays many literal intermediate spaces. The initial failed cemetery had been created between two large California highways, described by McClure as the most beautiful, perfect spot. The Harberts meticulously create their own intermediate spaces by mapping the plots at Bubbling Well according to a grid. When seen from above the whole cemetery seems to be fighting pitiless desert on all fronts. Maintaining these slices of green growth is a full-time battle against entropy – a battle which McClure’s foil, a sardonic rendering plant manager, finds ridiculous since animal bodies can be melted down and recycled in his plant, a place McClure describes as “Hell.”
We can usually talk about the death and corporeal remains of even beloved pets in a frank way we can’t with our own bodies. Gates of Heaven uses this notion to find a nebulous region between irony and reverence as its subject ponder the nature (or presence) of animals souls and what the uncertainty represents. In the end, we may or may not be able to follow our loved ones to Heaven but maybe we can keep them from completely disappearing from the Earth, at least for a little while. The gravesites of pets are the film’s final intermediate space, where we might go to mourn, reflect, or just shake our heads and chuckle at it all.
- Morris also found a limbo space between his filmmaking heroes. Wim Wenders called Gates of Heaven a masterpiece after watching a rough cut. Douglas Sirk walked out in the middle of a screening dismissing it as a “slideshow.”
- One last Criterion interview fun fact: Morris claims no memory of Herzog’s famous promise to eat his shoe if Morris finished the film and says the real story is boring: Herzog inspired him by making inspiring films. Herzog says he made the promise and went so far as to make sure he ate the actual shoe he was wearing on the day he said it (“I hate liars”). Who knows what really happened, but the competing accounts themselves are a useful contrast of the two men’s approach to truth.
- Every woman in this movie looks like they were drawn by Gary Larson.