Directed by: Errol Morris
Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven is a landmark documentary and the film that launched a master’s career. The film explores pet cemeteries in the late 1970s and, like any truly great documentary, is less about the immediate subject and more about the people involved.
The first half of Gates of Heaven involves Floyd “Mac” McClure, a kindly man who spent a lot of his life just trying to provide a respectful way for people to part with their dead pets. Mac gets upset when he talks about the local rendering plant and the way they treat people’s late pets with complete disrespect. In response, Morris interviews the owner of a rendering plant who is so smug and emotionally stunted he might be the basis for all of Norm MacDonald’s Saturday Night Live characters. Unfortunately not all of Mac’s business partners aren’t as morally rigid as he is and they make decisions that favour money more than memory. The second half of the film involves Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, owned by Cal Harberts, and operated by his two sons Danny and Philip.
What makes Gates of Heaven so compelling, however, is the way Morris allows his subjects to tell their own story which, more often than not, ends up being about a lot more than pet cemeteries. This is especially true in the latter portion of the film. One woman, who is supposed to provide light on the public attitude towards the exhumation and relocation of the pets in Mac’s cemetery, talks compulsively of her deadbeat son and her intense loneliness as though she just needed the opportunity to make herself heard. Philip Harberts, an ex-insurance salesman, talks on and on but I don’t recall him ever saying anything. It’s as though Philip fears that he has nothing to say and is overcompensating with reams of hip-sounding buzzwords and cod philosophy. Danny, Philip’s brother, is a deadbeat who couldn’t find his place in business nor academia, so now he plays guitar in his parents’ guest house and records his own music. Morris interviews several cemeteries, mostly couples, and they all find their way to the topic of faith and they all seem to believe that by burying their pets at the cemetery they will meet them again in heaven.
Morris’ film is about morality and motivation, and it’s about faith and it’s about business. Most of the people in the film mention these topics at least in some capacity. Mac, who says the only thing the courts can charge him with is compassion, had his dream ripped away from him by partners who put too many pets in a single grave in an attempt to make more money. Cal outlines that Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park offers various gardens at increasing prices. That these cemeteries are businesses is unavoidable, and without casting judgment Morris allows his interviewees to reveal the strength of their own characters.