Gates of Heaven Movie Review
Gates centers on two pet cemeteries: one that's gone bankrupt at the intersection of two highways in southern California and the other booming up north in Napa, California. The story caught Morris' eye supposedly when he saw a story in the San Francisco Chronicle headlined "450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa," detailing the move of all the dead pets from the failing graveyard to the thriving one.
But this film, like most of Morris' works, is about far more than pet cemeteries. We start out with Floyd McClure, the owner of the bankrupt park, getting the story of his dream to start up this final resting place for beloved animal friends; and migrate on to the stories of the owners of the deceased, and their tragically intriguing life tales. My favorite is Florence Rasmussen who, framed beautifully by Morris' probing camera, sits in the screen doorway of her home, bitching mournfully about her no-good son/grandson and how "he ought to be better to me."
Then the action moves north to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park (still around to this day at www.bubbling-well.com), where owner Cal Harberts and his sons - the sensitive, aspirant musician Danny and the positive-mental-attitude salesman Philip - are building the pet cemetery to end all others. Cal is the real entrepreneur here, or as Phil calls him "El Presidento." Meanwhile, Danny falls next in the pecking order, despite his mournful exterior and constant wailing on a guitar (especially over his 100-watt amp that blares out across the hills of the park; and Phil is struggling with playing third fiddle in this outfit, regardless of his great successor-style strategy for business achievement.
The movie is told in true Morris fashion, entirely from the subjects' point of view, with the camera trained squarely on the interviewee and absolutely no narration. It's pure genius, since the very best footage seen in Gates could only have come from observation rather than through goading.
While this documentary can plod at times, its pace is also oddly meditative. Just don't go into Gates of Heaven looking for an uproarious comedy. In this and most of Errol Morris' films, I feel as if I'm people watching on the weirdest plane of humanity (just see another of his films, Vernon, Florida); but then you take a step back and realize that these people are fairly commonplace, yet come across as totally bizarre when studied as up close as the camera goes here. And you have Morris to thank for taking you along on his voyeuristic trip.
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