Directed By: Errol Morris
Starring: Lucille Billingsley, Zella Graham, Cal Harberts
Tag line: "Death is for the living and not for the dead so much"
Trivia: In 1991, critic Roger Ebert named this one of the ten best films ever made
Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you 1978’s Gates of Heaven, directed by Errol Morris, is a documentary about pet cemeteries. But there’s more to it than that. A lot more, actually, because while the pet cemeteries form its framework, it’s the people director Errol Morris interviews during the course of the film that make it so unforgettable.
When the Foothill Cemetery in Los Altos, California, the brainchild of handicapped animal lover Floyd McClure, was abruptly closed, the 400+ pets buried there were exhumed and shipped off to the Bubbling Well Memorial Park, a large site situated in picturesque Napa Valley and run by Cal Herberts and his sons, Dan and Phil. Featuring interviews with McClure and the Herberts family, as well as a select few whose pets were buried at either one of the two cemeteries, Gates of Heaven reveals the heartache and grief that many experience when their beloved pet passes on while, at the same time, introducing us to some truly intriguing individuals.
Split into two sections, Gates of Heaven opens with Floyd McClure, whose dream of creating a pet cemetery was realized, then quickly snatched away for what we’re led to believe were financial reasons (we hear from a few of McClure’s associates, yet none delve too deeply into why the Foothill cemetery was closed). A genuinely warm and caring man, McClure talks quite a bit about why people owe it to their pets to give them a final resting place, and refers to rendering plants (where some animals are taken after death) as “Hell” on earth. At times, McClure’s comments are interspersed with an interview director Morris conducted with the manager of one of these rendering plants, who says his profession, which supposedly dates back to Ancient Egypt, is unfairly maligned (he tells of how an office worker, who never once stepped foot inside the factory, had to quit because she couldn’t deal with the reality of what went on there).
The bulk of Gates of Heaven, however, is dedicated to Bubbling Well and the Herberts clan. In the interviews conducted with Cal Herberts, he talks almost exclusively about the cemetery, including its different sections (one he calls the “Field of Honor”, where animals killed in the line of duty, e.g. police dogs, are buried free of charge) and the personal care his customers receive (during one particular service, a middle-aged couple, while laying their dog to rest, felt comfortable enough to show Cal a picture of the deceased). In direct contrast to Cal are his two sons: ex-insurance salesman and motivational speaker Phil, who talks of nothing but himself and the method he used to inspire subordinates to meet their sales quotas; and Dan, a young man fresh out of college who, when he’s not busy digging graves or learning the family business, is relaxing and playing the guitar.
Throughout Gates of Heaven, director Morris employs a “hands-off” interview style, where, instead of asking them a bunch of questions, he simply sets up his camera and lets his subjects speak their mind. This technique often leads to some revealing moments (a normally docile man, Floyd McClure gets visibly angry when speaking about rendering plants), and more than a few humorous ones (in a bizarre sequence, a pet owner tries to get her dog to talk by shouting at it in a shrill voice).
By giving his subjects carte blanche, Morris manages to coax some very interesting observations out of them, and while their diatribes sometimes drift off topic (an older woman spends most of her time prattling on about her grandson, who, despite having raised him since he was two, never comes around to visit her anymore), they’re never dull. And it’s because of this unique approach that I believe Gates of Heaven ranks alongside Woodstock, Grey Gardens and Hoop Dreams as one of the all-time best documentaries ever made,