' erasing clouds film review: gates of heaven
erasing clouds

Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Eleven: Gates of Heaven

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

Errol Morris (The Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) has become a household name for documentary lovers today, but he was a complete unknown before 1980’s Gates of Heaven. This low-budget documentary about pet cemetery proprietors and their customers is a surprise inclusion in Ebert’s Great Movies list. However, it does offer an original experience that goes beyond depicting strange people. When the discussions delve into the afterlife and discuss the need for a pet cemetery, the film moves beyond its oddball subject matter. It has not received any significant awards or much recognition as a classic, but it did introduce viewers to a thought-provoking filmmaker.

The film begins with comments from Floyd McClure, the paraplegic operator of the Foothill Pet Cemetery in Los Altos, California. This likable fellow appears concerned mostly with the pets receiving the proper burial. His thoughts contrast sharply with the owner of a rendering facility, who laughs off discussions about the ethical ramifications of his work. The act of rendering is truly shocking, and he does recognize zoos’ embarrassment at using them to take care of their dead animals. However, he does not appear to recognize the animals as individual entities. McClure offers a human counterpoint to this corporate view and easily earns my sympathies. Morris does not step in and simply points the camera and lets his subjects talk. Both men receive enough time to state their point of view, which allows the viewer to decide on the merits of each approach.

The second half visits the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park and the Calvin Harberts family, who own the Napa Valley cemetery. Two generations manage the park, with two very-different sons handling the daily maintenance. Philip once sold insurance and speaks in motivational lingo that appears to have little connection with his daily life. The strange guy appears unable to converse without using these odd terms, which makes us feel sorry for him. Equally sad is his younger brother Danny, who blares his awful music over the speakers and appears more resigned to a mundane life. This segment drags a bit and appears to go on longer than the material needs. Philip’s comments become mildly irritating as they become repetitive and lose their interest. Morris shoots everything with a deliberate pace and has no interest in energizing the material with any filming tactics.

Roger Ebert describes Gates of Heaven as a “litmus test” for audiences who cannot decide whether Morris sympathizes with or mocks his subjects. This lack of an easily identifiable tone could alienate some audiences who can’t discover a central point. When the owners discuss the afterlife and their pets’ souls, have they reached a higher understanding? Or have they lost their minds? The answer depends on the viewer’s perspective on animals and spirituality, which could lead to heated, intelligent debates about a wide array of issues. I believe that Ebert overstates the film’s depth and went overboard when he listed it among the 10 Greatest Films in 1991. However, I cannot deny the interesting thoughts generated by the quirky speakers.

This documentary might not warrant an inclusion onto a Great Movies list, but it does give a notable perspective about a unique topic. Prior to its creation, Werner Herzog bet Morris that if he completed a film about pet cemeteries, the German director would eat his own shoe. The surprising result was chronicled in the film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. I completely understand Herzog’s skepticism about the topic becoming an engaging documentary. Morris’ success in this venture proved his talents and offered the promise of an impressive career.

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2007 erasing clouds