Monday, October 03, 2005

Day 3: Gates of Heaven

Pet cemetery investor: Death is for the living and not for the dead.

Gates of Heaven is a documentary about pet cemetaries by the (rightfully) acclaimed filmmaker Errol Morris. I'm a fan of his work. In fact, I think that his The Fog of War is one of the best movies ever made. Now that I think about it, a case could be made for every movie of his that I've seen (The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Death, and Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control) being placed among the best movies ever made. His body of work is so honest, compassionate, and reveals so much about all kinds of human nature that it crosses over to the world of high art.

Gates of Heaven is both big and small at once. It is a quiet, contemplative film, but it deals with the way the living handle death in such a focused and nuanced way that it feels epic in scope. It's a beautiful movie, with exquisitely framed shots and no music but that which comes from an onscreen guitar. It's a masterpiece.

The movie details, through interviews with the particpants, the opening of a pet cemetary, its ultimate closure due to financing troubles, the movement of the dead animals to a second pet cemetary, and, along the way, the personalities of all those involved. In the middle, there is a priceless interview with an older woman that, while it may go on a bit too long, nearly had me believing that the whole thing was staged a la Christopher Guest;her manner and speech seemed so real it must have been faked.

On the surface, it is about these things, but really, it's about the way people live, what they choose to do with their lives. One segment of the film focuses on the Bubbling Well pet cemetary, run by the patriarchal Cal Harberts. The movie’s focus on the contrast between his two sons -- the older one worked in insurance for a while, the other flunked out of college -- as they both talk about working at the pet cemetary is exhilerating. The older brother, who has not worked there as long and, thus, is forced to work under his younger brother, talks in analytical terms about how much he has to learn, how he is trying to understand the "dealing with people" part. He is clearly excited when he talks about his work in the insurance business, bringing potential hires into his office where he has deliberately set up many trophies for the interviewee to see. The younger brother gets excited talking about his stereo, the songs he's written, and, when no one's around, plays music on powerful speakers into the valley where the dead animals reside. While these differences exist, they also seem linked in the same sadness of bad choices and failed aspirations.

The movie can best be summed up in a scene where Floyd McClure, who opens the doomed cemetary the movie begins with, talks about how awful he found the experience of visiting a rendering plant. He speaks at length about how awful the plant treats the dead animals, tearing them apart. He remarks that the smell of the place was awful. He says the smell of the place was so bad that, when he sat down for dinner, before he could enjoy the smell of a nice piece of meat... and here he pauses, looks away from the camera for a moment as if he’s just realized what he’s said, and then quickly adds, “or vegetables”… he had to take a sniff of his wine to clear his nostrils of the rendering scent. This moment, where you see a man take stock of the choices he's making in his life, unfolds cleanly before your eyes. The movie is full of these moments and, as a result, inspires similar thought in the viewer.

Going even further, the same man claims that God put these pets on earth solely to love and be loved. Throughout the film, the relationship of the owner to the pet is depicted as one of God to man. The owner is referred to as the pet’s master, and “good” pets are the ones that provide absolute fealty to the wishes of the owner, allowing total trust between the two entities. (This is nicely contrasted as the (priceless) older woman talks of betrayals she’s experienced at the hands of her very human son.) There’s much talk from grieving pet owners of whether or not their pets will be with them in heaven (and much agreement that the pets will, indeed, be there). The talk of God and the relationship of people to pets made me think that perhaps what we witness in a pet cemetery and, perhaps, all funerals, is an expression from the living of what they hope they, themselves, will experience from a grateful deity when they die.

Much to ponder, much to think about, and I don’t feel as if I’ve done the movie justice even with the help of my brilliant writer girlfriend. The movie reveals so much about these people by simply letting them talk. And the longer they go on, the more they reveal themselves. That very thought makes me want to stop right now. But it also makes me want to go on…


Boo Yah said...

Outstanding review. I'll have to see the movie. I'm impressed by how much you took in from one viewing.

justb said...

i like this blog. it's cool.

Daniel Burns said...

You were mentioned on GreenCine Daily:

M. Gants v4.0 said...

I just added this movie to my Blockbuster queue...I thought it was funny that Blockbuster thought that if I liked Gates of Heaven, then I might also enjoy Sesame Street: Elmo's World - The Great Outdoors. WTF?!

"Hey kids, you like dead puppies and sad people? Then you'll love the piss out of this Elmo flick..."

George said...

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Anonymous said...

You really write great reviews, makes me wanna see the movie. I might include it on my the best movies ever list. =)