Doc of the Day: Gates of Heaven Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Gates of Heaven

Posted in Days of Docs by - November 17, 2011

Dir. Errol Morris, 1978, 82 min

We’ve got our very first bona fide classic here at DoD. The revered Errol Morris’ first film. One of the “Great Movies” according the most high holy Ebert. Can I add anything to what has already been said and written about this work? Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll do my best.

Morris’ true brilliance, fully on display here, is his skill at crafting a narrative for his films without relying on “shortcuts.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with expository voice-over or subtitles, but the fact that he creates completely comprehensible stories without those tools shows that they really are kind of crutches. And this low-frills approach is taken from the top down, with his trademark straightforward interview style. He lets his subjects talk, or more accurately ramble, on their own, and knows exactly how to arrange his material to make it meaningful. As Gates of Heaven progresses, he weaves these simple elements into an increasingly complex web, and in this way he makes a story even though there’s no “plot” to speak of. The first act consists almost exclusively of interviews with two men, but as the film moves forward more people are introduced, and Morris shows us more than just talk. We see bulldozers in action and tombstones and a man rocking out on the guitar. This escalating complexity is the narrative, because the doc is a meditation, and its focus is larger than it originally appears.

That original focus, the premise that the film jumps off from, is how people handle the deaths of their pets, specifically what they do after those deaths. We meet two owners of animal cemeteries, one successful and one who failed and ended up having to excavate and relocate hundreds of furry little bodies (put that image in your head and try to be cheerful today), as well as one manager of a rendering plant (or that image). We start with the basic, practical reality of burying a pet, but then the movie introduces us to the actual people doing the burying and it starts to really move. Even on an emotional level, Morris is working with his complication strategy.

Morris never really needs voice-over because his subjects do all the talking needed, and more. Just watching people talk shouldn’t, in theory, be interesting, but it is here because what they have to say is so damn interesting. He knows A) how to find engaging subjects, and B) how to find exactly the right words that they say to present to us. Near the middle of the film, one old woman has a wonderful soliloquy about her youth and her descendants and it has nothing at all to do with the pet she had to say goodbye to, but we don’t care because she’s just so mesmerizing.¬†We get to know her a little, and then when she tells us about her dead cat, we can really empathize with her, whether or not our own experience relates to hers.

And while we’re on relatable experiences, have you ever lost a pet? Heck, I might as well ask if you’re human, right? I myself have something like a dozen rabbits, several birds, and a dog beneath my yard. This is a nigh-universal topic this movie is dealing with, and yet Morris never goes in for the kill at your nostalgia. No one in this movie breaks down in hysterics over dear departed Fluffsy. Which isn’t to say we don’t see people expressing their love for their non-human companions, it’s just shown in more quiet ways.

Because the truth is that Morris isn’t really looking at animal death; he’s looking at how we deal with death in general. What does it say about us that we will even make sure “proper respect” is paid to beings that, all sentimentality aside, probably can’t think or really feel, at least not on the level that we do? And of course, any piece about death that’s worth its salt is really also about life. One man in the film speculates about how people use dogs and cats and such as surrogates for children or grandchildren. The movie speaks to our desperate need for love, and the lengths we’ll go to in order to show it and even fake some kind of reciprocation (Except for you and your dog. He definitely has a soul and truly loves you back, I’m sure).

All the people in Gates of Heaven are both terrifically weird but also comfortably familiar, because really, all we’re seeing from them is the weirdness within us all that we pretend isn’t there. We laugh at the ridiculously sappy tombstone laid out for a duck, but can any of us claim not to have fallen into similar insanity? I’ve held funerals for rabbits. More than once! And that is why, beyond his proficiency in nonfiction storytelling, Errol Morris is able to make great films. He lays bare our common bizarreness, and it’s that bizarreness that I firmly believe is what makes us human.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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