Posted by: Kristen Hicks | May 1, 2013

On Gates of Heaven

gates of heaven

“It’s amazing. There are just so many different aspects to this.”

That line, spoken by one of the interview subjects of the film Gates of Paradise could be applied as the thesis of the film. Extending out from the subject of pet cemeteries, Errol Morris talks to a number of people with some connection to the industry about subjects ranging from marketing, making music, personal motivation, falling in love, death, life, and of course, the special relationships that form between pet owners and their pets.

Without the context of the film, it can be hard to see just how some of those relate to the existence and business of pet cemeteries. Errol Morris demonstrated an important part of his signature style in the making of this, his first non-fiction, movie:  his appreciation for people and what they have to say. By just letting people talk, you can create a piece of art that touches on a range of human experience and addresses some of life’s key issues.

Although I’ve liked other examples of Morris’ work, I likely wouldn’t have been inclined to check this out without the special acclaim it received from Roger Ebert, who called it “one of the greatest films ever made.” Watching a film that ruminates on what death means to the living, and explores the varied things and beings people come to care about most in life, feels a fitting way to honor one of the most known and beloved film lovers in the days following his own death.

From one of his reviews of the film:

There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?”

These words, by a woman who has just buried her dog, are spoken in “Gates of Heaven.” They express the central mystery of life. No philosopher has stated it better. They form the truth at the center of Errol Morris’ 1978 documentary, which is surrounded by layer upon layer of comedy, pathos, irony, and human nature. I have seen this film perhaps 30 times, and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it: All I know is, it’s about a lot more than pet cemeteries.

From another of the reviews (some interesting backstory):

The film was made by a California filmmaker named Errol Morris, and it has been the subject of notoriety because Werner Herzog, the West German director, promised to eat his shoe if Morris ever finished it. Morris did finish it, and at the film’s premiere in Berkeley, Herzog indeed boiled and ate his shoe.

Ebert writes about the movie in a way that combines the lightness of some of it’s funnier moments (or those funnier moments surrounding the film, in the case of the above) and the depths it really delves into in the course of exploring its subject matter.

Necessarily, considering the film’s premise, pets, and the strong connections people feel to their animals serve as a central subject in the film. But ultimately, the film is all about people. A connection to one of the two pet cemeteries featured is how the movie finds its cast, but each of them presents ideas, viewpoints and experiences based on their own world and character.

Floyd McClure dominates the first half of the film. He’s an animal lover first and foremost with a dream of creating a place for people to set their deceased animal friends to rest. Sadly, he lacks the business sense to follow through on his dream and the plan falls apart after around 450 pets have already been buried in his cemetery.

A messy lawsuit requires that the animals are dug up and moved up to Napa Valley, where the purveyors of a more successful pet cemetery have agreed to re-bury them. The family running the Bubbling Well pet cemetery, the Harberts, dominate the second portion of the film.

They give Morris some variety to work with. Cal Harberts, the patriarch, combines his respect for the grief of those who have lost an animal with an impressive business sense that keeps the cemetery running and quite profitable, by the looks of the settings they’re interviewed in. His wife talks a bit about religion and her feelings on the work they do, as well as giving some of the narrative to connect how the other two main characters of this section became involved: her sons.

The thoughts and experiences of Danny and Phillip add even more character to a film gates-of-heavenmusicalready packed full of it. Danny talks about his experience in business school, first working hard, and then partying; falling in love, and then having his heart broken. Now, he spends many of the hours he’s not helping his parents run the pet cemetery writing and playing music. Often, when the customers aren’t around, he’ll turn it up loud and play his songs so that they fill the valley and add a soundtrack to the resting place of hundreds of pets (many of whom may have been inclined to attack his speakers in life, if my dog’s behavior is any indication).

Phillip left a stressful life in the insurance business to embrace something less fast-paced in working with his family at the cemetery. He’s a clear former over-achiever, and he often drops mentions of his time in insurance in talking about other subjects. He seems to be still grappling with the decision to leave behind his former ideas of success and become comfortable in the world he lives in now. He dwells on ideas that sound right out of a self-help book.

Intercut with the interviews with these memorable and distinct characters, Morris will talk to customers about their feelings towards their pets and their thoughts on death. He takes a break from hearing from people to show the viewers some of the touching tombstones in the Bubbling Well Cemetery. Although not an especially long movie, it often feels like it moves slow to give the viewer time to get to know the people presented, consider their viewpoints and ponder the weighty themes addressed.

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