Gates of Heaven – 1979 – dir. Errol Morris
How do you get stuff this good from the raw material of average folks? Certain filmmakers have a knack for finding interview subjects worthy of our rapt attention, and that’s just what director Errol Morris does in “Gates of Heaven,” his 1978 documentary about the pet cemetery business in northern California.
Morris interviews a range of people with odd affects and a somewhat absurd lack of self-awareness, many of whom are willing to expound at painful length on the biz or sing to their dog on camera. In this group, it’s Phil Harberts who’s most immediately memorable. In his self-serious, malformed philosophizing, Harberts is like a real-life Michael Scott (Steve Carell’s boss character on “The Office”), formulating theories that are at once cliched and confused: “Our mind is like a computer,” he says. “If you put in positive, you would get out positive. If you put in negative, you’d get out negative.”
Morris tends to linger on his subjects and shows material that doesn’t seem to have any expositional value; the movie feels uncannily like a Coen brothers movie in its fascination with the moderately odd. At points it’s hard to guess the director’s motivations for spending so much time on certain subjects, and maybe this is what makes the film a bit beguiling. When Phil’s father Cal is explaining the naming conventions of the gardens at his pet cemetery, even though “The Garden of Memory” seems clear enough, or Dan Harberts details exactly how their grid works, even though it is the same system used by every map you’ve ever seen, you wonder what the devil Morris could be saying.
You could make the argument that Morris is just holding up this collection of offbeat characters for our own inspection as he plays the part of a detached journalist. While the pictorial compositions of the film look almost staged (and are, in any event, often near-perfect in their balance), it’s still a documentary without any voice-overs or even subtitles to direct your impressions. In theory, if you were a simpleton, you could walk out of the theatre thinking you’d simply seen an investigative report on an exceedingly dry topic.
I’m not a simpleton, however, and without an idea of what Morris intends but still searching for meaning, I find myself prompted to turn my attention back on myself and my response to the movie. There are moments that seem to demand no more than a chuckle, such as when Floyd “Mac” McClure and his business partners recount the minor scandal around the failure of their cemetery — low-key intrigue turned absurd by the nature of the venture. Also to a humorous end, at points the same kind of overheated vocabulary that Phil Harberts would use can be heard from other people, such as when McClure warns that you shouldn’t think of the pet cemetery business as a “suede shoe game,” his term for an operation geared at turning a quick buck. He doesn’t seem to realize how absurd it sounds to suppose that true hustlers would bother with the pet burial business. In the wake of McClure’s failure, Phil’s father Cal agreed to take 450 pets into his own pet cemetery, using this rather unsatisfying rationale: “We felt that we had an obligation to pet owners,” he explains. “If we did not take on this endeavor, it would leave many pet owners with a sour taste, and could set our industry back a long time.” He means “industry” as in the business of burying pets, to which you might fairly ask, “What industry?”
It’s fair enough to mock this absurdity just as we would make fun of a self-important minor poet going on about the nature of his “craft.” But watching “Gates of Heaven,” with Morris paying rapt attention to his interviewees’ inane monologues, I find myself tempted to expand the domain of my derisive sneer to these people on a more general basis than just their marginally overblown sense of importance. Many of Morris’ subjects exhibit an awkward lack of self-consciousness in front of the camera that reads as obliviousness, at least to me and probably to anybody that recognizes the worth of a carefully managed presentation of self.
Ultimately, however, these first reactions are not particularly fair, since McClure and the Harberts are, after all, only ordinary people, not actors trained to project personality at all times. In at least this aspect, there is no self-inflation to laugh at, so whatever fun there is to be had would be a touch cruel. Likewise, it would be easy for me (but not quite just) to belittle the enthusiasm they have for the idea of a pet cemetery, which as an aesthetic phenomenon strikes me as horribly tacky. The problem is that I can’t figure out why, and I suspect my reaction is just an artifact of my socioeconomic class, even as it feels like a completely natural — even logical — response. I have to admit that there’s no objective evidence that these men dreaming of an eternal resting place for their beloved animal friends are not, in their way, visionaries.
Perhaps Morris intends to cause us, through the sustained observation of the seemingly dull, to reflect on our own feelings, if only because we are forced to ask why he’s presenting this to us. Or perhaps he wants to point up the legitimate issues that, amid the inanity, are introduced: Can the simple-minded love of animals compare to that of humans? What happens to the spirit when we die? What do we owe our animals? These aren’t questions that are explored in any philosophical context, but that doesn’t matter; the film and its subjects come by the question honestly, just as anyone might, whatever their class. We are all together in the same muddle trying to answer them, even if some of us are more articulate or knowing.