Gates of Heaven

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Time has not been kind to documentarian Errol Morris’ first feature film, Gates of Heaven (1978), and one suspects that a large infusion of irony into the zeitgeist during the past 20 years, along with an increasingly desensitized attitude toward matters grotesque are the reasons why. In any event, pet cemeteries, the ostensible subject of the film, no longer seem particularly strange and so the original impact of the movie (one comes to scoff at the misguided, only to learn that they’re fairly normal folks with normal needs) no longer maintains.

Of course, part of the original appeal of the film was that one was never quite sure of its intended tone. Morris likes to let his subjects speak for themselves and, in later efforts like The Thin Blue Line (1988) and Fast, Cheap and Out of Control (1997), he embellishes the talk with an expressive visual commentary which plays like another layer of ambiguity. Is he mocking or merely highlighting the subjects, the better for us to determine their absurdity quotient? But Gates of Heaven has little discernible visual style and we’re left with people talking and talking, way past the point where we’ve taken their measure and absorbed their stories.

The film does offer an interesting contrast between two pet cemetery entrepreneurs. The first, Floyd McClure, seems like a genuine animal lover and goes on at length about his vision of a cemetery as an alternative to a local rendering plant, and how it all fell through. The second, Cal Harberts, operates the successful Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park and radiates an easy insincerity, possibly because he’s also a preacher. A little time is given over to some actual pet owners, who seem no more crazy than most people, and a lot of time is given to Cal’s two sons, who seem to be going quietly mad.

Gates has its moments, but its main point of interest is as a primitive example of Morris’ later expertise, a sketchy version of those films which would later make him justly famous.

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