Rapid Response: Gates of Heaven

Errol Morris’s debute documentary “Gates of Heaven” remains a beguiling and fascinating movie.

I may have just watched one of the most controversial, intensely debated and best movies ever made without even knowing it. That is the enigma of Errol Morris, who’s legendary mystique started with this film in 1978, “Gates of Heaven.”

The film is a documentary about a man who starts a pet cemetery, fails, has over 450 pets displaced to yet another cemetery, and then about the people who work there and take their job very seriously.

It is a damned peculiar documentary. It is not a documentary that advocates political or social change or provides a thorough historical document of people’s lives. It tells a story of these people who live in California and does not offer any commentary or internal narration as to what it thinks about them.

The same is true of Morris’s great new film “Tabloid,” in which we can’t quite believe it all to be true, yet Morris never tells what to believe nor give us any reason to doubt any of it. But watching “Tabloid,” there’s no question that watching much of it is intended to be outrageous and shockingly hilarious, even if he does wholeheartedly sympathize with the woman who raped a Mormon (don’t ask).

“Gates of Heaven” is much more subtle. The film’s ironic, sardonic twists are not necessarily intended for comic relief. But Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of the film, one in which he refers to the time he called “Gates of Heaven” one of the 10 best movies ever made, gives me the sense that I am not alone in this feeling. “The film they made has become an underground legend, a litmus test for audiences, who cannot decide if it is serious or satirical, funny or sad, sympathetic or mocking,” he writes.

The same is said in Ebert’s recent review of “Tabloid.” “Even in his first film, “Gates of Heaven” (1978), Morris was looking but not judging. Every audience I’ve seen that film with has been divided about whether he loves its subjects or is mocking them. Impossible to say.”

Suffice it to say, I fall in the latter category. I didn’t know what to make of the film and wondered how anyone could think a film about a pet cemetery was interesting. My thought was that the passion with which these people talk about their jobs and their dreams and their problems in order to appease their animals was ridiculous, and that was exactly the point. For any film to try and take their stories seriously without a hint of irony must be steeped in this same oddity and blindness.

That’s not to say I think Errol Morris is intentionally condescending to his subjects just to make a statement. The movie has unequivocal moments of sincerity and truth embedded within it, and it even ends on an empty, solemn note. I think his intention was to show how we can become engaged with any family or story, no matter the subject or how foreign and impossible it may seem, if told correctly.

I think a look at just the camera placement itself would lend someone to believe that something is awry. From the first shot of a gigantic weeping willow dwarfing a paraplegic, we see some almost inherently funny framing. It’s long been a debate whether just the way a camera is arranged can be funny in itself, but perspective has a lot to do with any situation, and Morris did not break cinematic, documentary staples in 1978 for no reason.

I couldn’t help but notice that many of these California residents resemble the same Midwestern parodies we’ve come to expect in the movies. These people and their strange rituals for their animals seem to come from another planet.

And their presence is not the only thing that seems alien. I might not be alone in thinking that the woman who cuddles her poor whining dog until it whinnies, the strikingly dressed socialite with her beloved puppy framed in a photograph in the background or the elderly woman in the pink, polka dot frock are from planet Earth.

How about the man who tells the story about the cat that got caught in the dryer? Yes, it’s terrible, but tell me you didn’t just do a double take to read that sentence again. WHAT happened to the cat? Or at the rendering plant with “Joe the Bear?” Did Sarah Palin come up with that pet name? Or the perfect comedic timing of the husband who just says the word “neutered” after his wife is about to make a sugar coated suggestion about how to care for pets? What about the half breed dog being buried, and Morris gives us minimal change in view during the burial vigil, until flooring us with a close up of a ridiculously bushy dog that the man can’t help but call beautiful. Or the line on the tombstone that reads, “God is love – backwards its dog,” a line that sounds sweet until you think about it for two seconds.

Maybe I’m being cynical, but I can’t change how I reacted. Of course Morris left the film open ended and up for debate, so I’m not just a tasteless asshole. Whether you find poignancy in “Gates of Heaven’s” down-to-Earth admiration or depredation in his disjointed narrative, this is a film with much to consider, and that’s uncommon for movies about pet cemeteries.