GATES OF HEAVEN (1978, dir. Errol Morris)

(Source: CriterionForum.org)
Calvin Harbert and pet mourners in GATES OF HEAVEN. (Source: CriterionForum.org)

Mandy was a part-Husky, part-wolf dog that my family had when I was growing up, and she died by euthanasia at the vet. Two days before her passing, she collapsed while I was walking her. Her liver and kidneys conked out and it was decided by my parents to put her down mercifully.

This happened when I was teen and, honestly, I didn’t have a Lassie-and-Timmy relationship with Mandy. But I was fond of her, and it was startling as a middle-class suburban kid unaccustomed with mortality to witness her downturn.

When she faded out of her last living moment, a radio at the vet happened to be playing Queen’s magnum opus song “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And she didn’t die during that song’s wind-down, which would have been most appropriate. She passed away during the song’s bombastic, campy, A cappella, “Galileo/Figaro” mid-section. Looking back, it was kind of absurd.

Then again, it was also appropriate, because there’s something strange about pet ownership. Through chance and convenience, humans have domesticated animals that could theoretically kill or harm us. Likewise, our survival doesn’t require us to be in concert with any animal. Yet still, we have pets and we benefit from them. Also, the absurdity of pet ownership has the potential to remind us of the absurdity of existence. Sure, this sounds nihilistic, but there isn’t a discernible reason or explanation as to why life is really here on Earth. Yet still, we are here and we benefit, struggle, and shuffle off this mortal coil, just as any animal does. Having pets only italicizes this fact of life.

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Errol Morris. (Source: BleedingCool.com)

The recent Criterion Collection video release of Errol Morris’s debut documentary feature film Gates of Heaven[1] features a 2014 interview with Morris in which he addresses a common complaint that some viewers have made against the film: that he was making fun of the people in it, individuals who were associated with two Northern California based pet cemeteries in the late 1970s, one started by Floyd McClure that failed and another started by the Harberts family that prospered:

“There was always trouble with GoH… I got so tired of defending myself. At a certain point I would just say, ‘yes I am ridiculing all of them and so what.’ But there’s a simpler answer.   Probably a more forgiving answer, at least to me. I love the absurd, okay? I fess up. I– love– the absurd. I like the ridiculous. I like the hopeless and the hapless. To love the absurdity of people is not to ridicule them. It is to embrace on some level how desperate life is for each and every one of us. Including [Morris points to himself] me. If the thought is for a moment that I see myself on a pedestal, some kind of elevated position with respect to these people I put in my films: not so. It’s just not so.”

Yet, even if Morris has clarified his intentions with the film there’s still the question as to why, or how, people have interpreted the film to be a deliberate or backhanded lampooning of real-life individuals.

While watching GoH, it’s evident that it’s a work of exacting intelligence that happens to be about common, sometimes downtrodden people. While Morris hadn’t developed his “Interrortron” camera set-up for interviews at this point in his career, he still eschewed both traditional and contemporary modes of documentary filmmaking by adhering to a self-imposed, restrained mode of representation that’s comparable to Yasujiro Ozu’s rigid and formal style of filmmaking.

Interview Screenshots. Clockwise from top: Florence Rasmussen, Catharine Halbert, anonymous interviewee, Floyd McClure. (Source: Criterion.com.)
Interview Screenshots. Clockwise from top: Florence Rasmussen, Catharine Halbert, anonymous interviewee, Floyd McClure. (Source: Criterion.com.)

There are no devices in the film that are overtly expository let alone ideological or manipulative in tone (i.e. voiceover narration, titles indicating location/time/identification, non-diegetic music cues, and no on-screen host/s), nor is there any handheld, freewheeling camerawork that intends to capture extemporaneous moments a la the Cinema Verite documentary mode that had become a mainstay by the late 70’s. Most of the film is composed of testimonial interviews that are almost entirely shot in the same manner. Framed in a planimetric compositions, subjects address a uniformly-distanced and stationary camera that’s equipped with a fixed focal length lens while in real settings that are somehow indicative of their lifestyles. Likewise, if the camera does move, it only pans while mounted to a tripod in wide-shots that establish and survey relevant locations. It’s as if you’re observing people and things in a lab only somehow the whole world has become the laboratory.

Yet Morris’s acute point-of-view is conveyed more by how he edits the film. Segments of the testimonials are presented and arranged in a way that tells the stories of the two pet cemeteries as if they were academic or legal or financial case studies, all the while including “obligatory” yet paradoxically crucial moments that convey these peoples’ specific personalities that are inextricable to their own life situations that they’re discussing. By virtue of its structure, GoH communicates multiple, often contradictory things with a straightforward, scrupulous confidence, signifying a high degree of intelligence on the Morris’s part. It also makes the film more multivalent than if it were only really about pet cemeteries.

gatesofheavenblu00004
Anonymous interviewee. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)

Conversely, the film doesn’t give the audience any easy, clear-cut indication as to how we should feel about these individuals. Therefore, the films’ detached, matter-of-fact, somewhat cold and artful approach towards everyday people has the potential to make viewers unduly concerned, jumping to the conclusion that those represented are being subjugated by Morris’s camera eye for the sake of irony. (Also, it doesn’t help that the people in GoH are often discussing something that can carry a lot of sentimental weight: the death of pets. (“Surely, this topic should be treated with more warmth, right?”)) Similarly, there could be viewers who on some level think that the notion of treating pet-death as sacred as human-death is ridiculous but, out of a sense of wanting to be morally fair or upright, will displace their disapproval onto Morris or the film in order to let them selves off the hook.

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Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park as seen in GATES OF HEAVEN. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)
Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park as seen in GATES OF HEAVEN. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)

Despite any consternation from viewers, GoH is enough of an open-text film for it to interpreted as not a work of ridicule that has a misanthropic streak a mile wide but an empathetic work of philosophical inquiry and bemusement– just as Morris views it– that matter-of-factly gets at key elements of our human experience while leaving enough room for mystery to persist.

Also, GoH has aged well because it reflects aspects of our current post-agrarian/post-industrial era in the U.S. albeit at an earlier stage. Being an animal lover who grew up on a farm, Floyd McClure strove to establish a pet cemetery in Los Altos for sentimental reasons. There were no real practical purposes behind his thwarted enterprise; he just felt a psychological and spiritual need to provide burial services for pet owners and provide an alternative to keep pet remains from being rendered, which he sees as cruel and hellish. To provide counterpoint, Morris intersperses segments of an interview with Mike Koewler, the manager of a rendering company who espouses his industry by pointing out that it can provide a service to pet owners who can’t deal with animal remains and creates industrial products. Right away, there’s a contrast between goods (Koewler) and services with no tangible value (McClure) as they relate to animal ownership.

In two separate shots, McClure v. Koewler. (Source/s: CriterionForum.org)
In two separate shots, McClure v. Koewler. (Source/s: CriterionForum.org)

Tacitly, this demonstrates how U.S. society has been changing. As our culture has become less centered around agriculture, people have less reason to see animals as things to dominate or render for practical, economic ends. In turn, this creates more possibility for people to develop humane, domestic, abstract and personal relationships with animals. (In part, this can be demonstrated through statistics that show that pet ownership and expenditures on pets have increased over time.)

Likewise, the post-industrial viability of pet-burial services is substantiated in the second half of the film. It focuses on the Harberts, the family who reburied the animal remains from McClure’s failed cemetery in their own, more successful Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in Napa, California. Where McClure was driven by a sentimental need but defeated by economical vagaries, the Harbert clan—which includes older patriarch Cal, wife Catharine and adult sons Dan and Phil—ostensibly succeed because they adhere to a business philosophy (as well as homegrown self-help practices in Phillip’s case) while acknowledging and respecting the psychological and spiritual components of their clients’ burial needs. This implies that “feelings are nice to have” in our society but knowledge and information are “more crucial” to successful enterprises than passion, purpose or emotional need. (Note: the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park is still operational.)

Phillip Harbert. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)
Phillip Harbert. (Source: CriterionForum.org.)

But superseding these cultural or economic as well as other aspects of GoH is a more basic concern that the documentary explores: mortality. In a society in which death looms less prominent because of cultural denial and increasing human life expectancy, long-time pet ownership can provide one with a palpable, bittersweet, and more recurrent reminder of how all living things die. And with that there are spiritual issues that can’t be exhausted: as a rhetorical pet mourner expresses it simply yet beautifully near the end of GoH, “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?”[2]

Pet mourner:
Pet mourner: “it had to be something, didn’t it?” (Source: CriterionForum.org.)

So despite the austerity of GoH, it stirs feelings in me as an animal lover even while I’m on the film’s intellectual wavelength. As I divulged in the beginning of this post, I have known a pet, as well as other pets, that have passed away. Right now, my girlfriend and I have two cats, one of whom is middle-aged. And although I dread their inevitable passing over the rainbow bridge, that inevitability makes me appreciate the absurd yet humane relationship I have with them while reminding me, in an enriching way, of the limits of my own existence.

Still– this topic can touch a psychic nerve and make me weepy. For example: Morris includes a montage of stationary shots of the headstones of buried animals at the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. One shot in particular made me cry when rewatching the film:

(Source: Pinterest.com)
(Source: Pinterest.com)

Am I really no different from many of the people in this documentary? If so, I don’t feel like the film has ridiculed me. Instead, it holds a mirror up.

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The film's first shot: McClure under a tree. (Source: CriterionForum.org)
The film’s first shot: McClure under a tree. (Source: CriterionForum.org)

GoH is a documentary that investigates something that seems insignificant but reveals itself to be complex and unfathomable. It’s not about pet cemeteries per se; it’s about how pet cemeteries are a prismatic subject that reflects and refracts many aspects of the human condition. And sure, these issues might seem obvious and prosaic on paper (as they might in this post), but the way they are presented and addressed is enigmatically masterful. As Roger Ebert stated in his Great Movies entry for GoH, “I have seen this film perhaps 30 times, and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it.”

Finally– it would be unfair to assume that Morris wasn’t moved at all by what he found. He may be cynical and, in his own words, an “anti-postmodernist postmodernist” but, surely, he doesn’t have a heart of stone.

As this clip shows: he just loves the absurd, okay?

(R.I.P. Mandy, Chewy, Aggie, Paddy, Scully, and Sparky.)

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[1] The DVD pairs GOH with Morris’s second documentary feature, Vernon, Florida.

[2] Upon rewatching GoH, I noticed that there is only one scene in it that has an onscreen animal— one where a pet owner bark-sings with her small dog in her kitchen (see the fourth image in the post.) Whether this was deliberate or not, the absence of living, onscreen animals in the film augments its themes of loss and ontology. Also, it prevents GoH’s interview subjects from seeming too sentimental, which reduces the chances of the film being interpreted as too “ridiculous”, “campy” or “derisive.”

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