With his first feature-length movie, Errol Morris made it clear he was a different kind of documentarian, interested in capturing the idiosyncrasies of people upon whom other filmmakers would not lavish attention. For while Gates of Heaven echoes the work of the Maysles brothers (notably 1975’s eccentrics-on-parade classic Grey Gardens), Morris puts his own stamp on the genre with a very specific camera style employing centered, meticulously composed, and static compositions. To some degree, Gates of Heaven is freak show presented as an art piece. Yet the bizarre people in Gates of Heaven aren’t merely displayed for the audience’s condescending amusement, because some of the folks depicted onscreen are rational and successful. One of the virtues of this strange little picture is that it creates rapport between the audience and the interview subjects. We may not like or respect all the people we meet in Gates of Heaven, but by the end of the movie, we gain empathy for them.
The nominal subject of the picture is the pet-cemetary business in Florida, and finding a compelling story within this unlikely milieu demonstrates Morris’ considerable journalistic enterprise. The narrative evolves in stages. First we meet Floyd McClure, an older man who performs elaborate funerals for pets. Then we’re introduced to a callous fellow who uses the term “rendering” when describing the transformation of animal corpses into glue. What ensues is a meditation on the failure of McClure’s business and the success of the rendering enterprise, which brings up all sorts of David-vs.-Goliath imagery while also exploring peculiar notions of existentialism. (McClure’s anguish at disappointing his clients, and his virulent rebuttals to their accusations of betrayal, are fascinating to watch.) Later, Morris presents the family operating a pet cemetery that accepts remains transferred from McClure’s graveyard. And that’s when Gates of Heaven truly takes flight, achieving a kind of downbeat poetry.
While cemetery proprietor Calvin Harberts and his wife come across as normal, if a bit crass, Morris devotes considerable screen time to their adult son, who deals with the disappointments of life by playing his guitar and singing sad songs. That’s key. Although this film’s subject is inherently tethered to mortality, the underlying theme surfaces in depictions of the ways that people find meaning in their lives. Some, like McClure, undertake personal crusades, while others, including the “rendering” executive, take satisfaction in material success. In this context, it’s interesting to see what people say when Morris asks them to describe their worldviews. Some offer ridiculous remarks, including the fellow who opines that women who don’t have children desire pets (“She has to have something to fondle”), while others expose the pain in their souls. In one tangential scene, Morris interviews an elderly woman lamenting that her son has abandoned her: “I been through so much I don’t know how I’m staying alive.”
Gates of Heaven: GROOVY