Saturday, March 5, 2016

#2,028. Gates of Heaven (1978)

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 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 cemeteries form the framework of this 1978 film, it’s the people who director Errol Morris interviews over the course of the movie that make it so unforgettable.

When the Foothill Cemetery in Los Altos, California - the brainchild of handicapped animal lover Floyd McClure - was abruptly shut down, some of 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. The film also introduces 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 assume must have been 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 he claims 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 it's proprietors: the Herberts clan. In the interviews conducted with Cal Herberts, the patriarch 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, such as 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's remarks are those of his two sons: ex-insurance salesman and motivational speaker Phil, who talks of nothing but himself (including the methods he once used to inspire other salesmen to meet their 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 never comes around to visit her anymore), they are never dull. 

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 best documentaries ever made,

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