Errol Morris is the best-known documentary director in the business. He certainly has a sense of the bizarre and the human, as evidenced in his recent Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr., about the "Florence Nightingale" inventor of execution devices who became an expert witness for neo-Nazi Holocaust revisionists. Morris also directed The Thin Blue Line, known for its investigative work and marvelous Phillip Glass score; the excellent A Brief History of Time, about physicist Stephen Hawking; and the frenetic Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, about four people with unusual professions.
Before these artistic documentaries could be made, Morris had to have a starting place. After all, producers are going to be very reluctant to finance a documentary without seeing a body of previous work. Such is the case for Errol Morris' remarkable first documentary, which had virtually no financial backing.
Fortunately, he did have a camera and saw the potential in making a film out of a news story he read. A pet cemetery in Los Altos was closing down and its 400 pet coffins were being transferred to another location in Napa Valley. Thus, the idea behind Gates of Heaven was born.
The film techniques are necessarily very simple because Morris operates with just one camera. Gates of Heaven is split into two parts: the Los Altos pet-cemetery portion and the Napa Valley pet-cemetery material. The two are transitioned by one large, remarkable monologue.
These two mini-documentaries consist primarily of interviews with people. And that's where Errol Morris’ skills are apparent. He captures the essence of some remarkable people, and transports this simple genre to a complex art form. It's difficult to tell whether Gates of Heaven is comedy, tragedy, or just plain wacky. You might end up viewing it with your mouth agape.
Gates of Heaven starts with a long shot of paraplegic Floyd McClure sitting under a large weeping-willow tree. McClure communicates his love for pets, and he recounts the moment his collie was killed by a Model A as if it just happened last week.
With Morris’ camera cranking, McClure describes his dream to have a pet cemetery ever since he was a small boy after visiting a rendering plant on a 4-H field trip. His sincerity and hatred towards those places oozes forth as he describes their retch-inducing smell and compares them to being in hell.
McClure's enemy, the owner of a rendering company, dispassionately discusses the logic behind being resourceful and using dead animals for product. Imagine having a dead horse in 102-degree heat with no way to dispose of the animal quickly. Most people are going to call on a rendering company before hauling the animal off to a pet cemetery.
The company owner even discloses that his plant has “rendered” pachyderms and other large zoo animals. Of course, the local zoo keeps this information under wraps and his plant always denies knowing anything about it.
Using his camera to film both interviews, Morris masterfully switches back and forth between McClure and the rendering company owner throughout this sequence.
Two of the investors in McClure's pet-cemetery venture are shown, one of whom explains that he lost $30,000. To emphasize the nature of his business, McClure asserts that he places more value on matters of the heart than he does material goods--simultaneously McClure doodles a "heart" figure drawn on top of a dollar sign, as he tells us that the only thing that his investors can sue him over is “compassion.”
Gates of Heaven doesn't look like more recent Morris documentaries, which had much higher budgets that enabled Morris to do more creative things (like employ an elaborate soundtrack, professionally mix the sound, or use multiple camera angles).
Still, it is an essential addition for the serious collector, and it foreshadows Morris’ talent. The way Morris visually communicates philosophical ideas and demonstrates character is reminiscent of Bergman. Like the legendary Swedish director, his camera consistently lingers much longer on people’s faces than most "normal" directors would choose.
A particularly poignant moment comes just before the transition to Napa Valley. Although told McClure is “handicapped,” no visual evidence is shown until after his dreams of having a pet cemetery have been dashed economically. Morris shows a long, silent shot of McClure from the backside: in his wheelchair, under the weeping willow, gazing over his cemetery locale. It's a shot that communicates the isolation and discouragement this man now faces—far more eloquently than any spoken words could have done.
A bizarre transition introduces Florence Rasmussen, who sits in her doorway overlooking the pet cemetery, and she begins talking about the removal of the dead pets. She begins her life story and soon begins to rant about her son. Amazingly, Morris chooses to leave the camera running on this woman, and she just doesn’t stop. Morris' camera is steady, and he chooses to let Rasmussen ramble on about her life. The longer she rambles, the more she ends up contradicting herself.
I'm still not sure why Morris leaves the whole of Rasmussen's ramblings in Gates of Heaven. Perhaps it serves as a physical boundary between the Los Altos cemetery and the one in Napa Valley. It's also a David Lynch-esque reminder about the strangeness of the world around us. If nothing else, Rasmussen is memorable!
Also remarkably strange is the Harberts family that runs the Bubbling Well Memorial Park in Napa Valley. The parents started the business, and seem to have done well with it, but are planning to retire soon so they can travel. They'll leave the business to their two sons.
Danny is the youngest. He dropped out of college to come back to work in the pet cemetery business. He has recently broken up with a girlfriend.
His has a lonely life. He records tracks on his guitar, and sometimes sets up his amplifiers so the whole valley can hear his music, including the dead pets. He's the son who knows the insides of the pet cemetery business, and seems wacky enough to keep it going. Yet he is the practical brother who knows that you can't dig a grave too big and waste valuable space, and you can't make it too small, because the animal just won't fit.
His older brother, Phillip, has recently returned home to work the business after selling insurance. He clings to all the positive-mental-attitude training he has received, and shows how he tries to impress people with his plastic trophies and quotes from motivational books. He can "talk the talk," but he may not have much real success to back up his theories.
Morris takes us on a visual tour of the Bubbling Wells Memorial Park, which gives us a glimpse of how much people care for their pets. The park's various sections exemplify the pets' qualities: Garden of Companionship, Garden of Devotion, Garden of Gentle Giants, etc. The headstones usually have the pet’s picture, and a saying to go with it. One that struck me said "God is Love . . . backward it is dog."
It's obvious that the people who bring their pets to the cemetery love them as family, and many express the hope and faith that their pets will meet them in the afterlife. As one interviewee says, "If there's no pets in heaven, would you still want to go there?"
It is Morris' selection of people and their statements that make Gates of Heaven required viewing for documentary aficionados. Whether you see it as a serious documentary or as comedy will depend on your mindset. The way Morris presents it allows us to see both aspects. We get a profound view of the nature of life and death, along with some eccentric people and very strange statements.
Though the “stars” of Gates of Heaven are the two owners/managers of the pet cemeteries, some of the interviews that stick the most are of grieving pet owners.
One couple explain to us that their dog, Trooper, didn't have other dogs to relate to, so he grew especially attached to them. Another couple relate the story of how their dog died after an unsuccessful treatment from a veterinary clinic. As the wife is explaining the situation, and begins to give a recommendation about what people should do with their pets, the husband interrupts her with a classic, one-word response.
Do watch Gates of Heaven. The film is much more than a mere documentary about a pet cemetery; images and scenes will come back to you long after you've seen it.