“Gates of Heaven” – A Peculiar Study of Humanity

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Back in the late 1970’s, German film-maker Werner Herzog bet against the student film-maker Errol Morris that he would never make a movie. The bet wasn’t certain amount of dollars. The bet was to eat one’s shoe. Herzog, who has already proved his directorial prowess (with “Aguirre”, “Hearts of Glass”) at that time, didn’t bet to poke fun at the attempts of Errol Morris. Herzog just wanted to provide a quest for the gifted but struggling director. In the end, Morris got the finance to finish his project, and Herzog true to his bet ate his shoe, ‘on camera’ (it was made into a short documentary “Herzog Eats his Shoe”). The documentary Morris made not only gave us a bizarre shoe-eating routine; it also originated a new sub-genre of innovative documentaries.

“Gates of Heaven” (1978) was the name of Errol Morris’ documentary. It’s the documentary that made into Roger Ebert’s list of ‘Greatest Movies of all Time’. The critical success of the movie imbued fresh approach into documentaries as it urged documentary film-makers, in the following decades to just take a camera and find interesting, peculiar subjects to make movies. In “Gates of Heaven”, Morris goes north of San Francisco to the ‘Foothill Memorial Gardens’ cemetery, which was closed and its land sold for housing projects. But, this wasn’t just any cemetery. The cemetery’s existence came from the idea of Floyd McClure, whom as a young man after encountering the death of his beloved pet, buried it and set up a pet cemetery. Soon, it became a business model for compassionate pet owners as they wanted to commemorate their pets after death.

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Foothill Memorial Gardens was one such pet cemetery, which was about to be moved to ‘Bubbling Well Memorial Park’ in Napa Valley. This relocation news came in small newspaper column. Errol Morris took this chance to explore the psyches of some of the pet owners, which eventually became a deeper and longer meditation on death and aging. Obviously, the subject of pondering over pet cemeteries might easily put off majority of viewers, but Morris’ perfect choice of interviewees is what gives us the curiosity and providing us an amusing portrait of sentimentality. Morris doesn’t ask many questions. He simply asks the interviewees to sit comfortably and then just asks them to open up about the feeling they had for their pets.

While the pet lovers’ gushes out their thoughts in an unscripted manner, Morris’ camera inter-cuts to shots of two pet cemeteries and the relocation. Although the documentary is seen as a satire, Morris never exploits his subjects for fun. Some of the pet owners’ ramblings might seem foolish or pragmatic, but at the same time we have to understand that these people are innocent and uncomplicated, who doesn’t feel the need to behave in a different manner in front of the camera (they are 100 percent sincere). And, Morris is honest in this matter as he doesn’t edit their talks or insert camera tricks to jest at their grief.

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Morris’s quirky documentary subject is something you would see in a trivia section. But, he takes such a paltry thing to gives us a mood piece that reflects on the subject of human loneliness. Although the film is about pet cemetery, Morris doesn’t concentrate on the pets that are buried. Instead he focuses on the human subjects, who fill their life’s emotional gaps by fiercely attaching to faithful companions. The interviewee who makes a great impression on us is the old lady, Florence Rasmussen, who at certain point in the interview goes off-topic and talks about her ingrate grandson inside the prison and then comes back to compare him with her late grateful pet. The other intriguing subjects are the Harbets family (a father and his two sons) – the new cemetery owner, who doesn’t show any concern for pets, but has gone into this venture strictly as a money-making business.

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The documentary lacks music and fictional re-enactments in order to maintain purity and to not become mawkish in its style. The slow pace of this three-and-half decade old documentary would certainly frustrate and annoy those who are not in a reflective frame of mind.

“Gates of Heaven” (82 minutes) is a unique and puzzling movie experience. It is a heartfelt character study about people who try to eradicate solitude by relying on pets than on fellow human beings.

 

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