Coming to NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image as part of its Errol Morris’ America series this weekend, July 23-24: GATES OF HEAVEN
In 1978, Morris made his documentary debut with this understated gem that helped to establish him as one of the US’ most notable documentarians. The film screened in the New York Film Festival and went on to a successful theatrical release. It famously was the subject of a wager between the director and Werner Herzog, who pledged to eat his shoe if Morris made GATES and managed to get it shown in theatres. The result was documented by Les Blank in his short film, the aptly titled WERNER HERZOG EATS HIS SHOE.
This unusual, and unusually affecting, film focuses on pet cemeteries – the people who run them and some pet owners who have buried their beloved animals there. As in Morris’ other films, he turns the cameras on his interview subjects and lets them tell their stories, directly to the camera, and unmediated beyond his editing choices. The soft-spoken but at times intense Floyd McClure, also known as Mac, is the focus of the first half of the film. He speaks at length about his strong feelings that animal companions should be granted a respectful resting place, both for their own sake and for those they’ve left behind. His solution was the ill-fated Los Altos, CA’s Foothill Pet Cemetery, an alternative to rendering plants that dispose of animal remains – an industry that is heard from here as well, via a kind of smarmy, kind of funny plant owner. The second half of the film zeroes in on Cal Harberts, his wife, and their two sons, who run the successful Napa Valley Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, as well as a church that preaches that God will welcome both two-legged and four-legged creatures at the gates of heaven. In between are comments from pet owners about their loss, including the show stealer, Florence Rasmussen, who delivers a meandering monologue about her life that doesn’t appear to have much to do with the rest of the film, but provides a remarkable moment that matches the strange mix of pathos, humor, irony, and Americana that is captured so seemingly effortlessly by Morris through the entire film. This one definitely is worthy of its label as a “classic” – if you haven’t seen it yet, make sure that you do.