Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lucille Billingsley, Zella Graham, Cal Harberts, Dan Harberts, Phil Harberts, Scottie Harberts, Mike Koewler, Floyd McClure, Ed Quye, Florence Rasmussen
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Errol Morris
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 85
Date: 10/01/1978

Gates of Heaven (1978)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Life and Pets

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven is a strange, sweet movie. At any moment it can make you weep, or rage at the treatment of its subjects. It can make you think twice about the nature of life as we know it. Technically, it's a movie about pet cemeteries, but specifically it's a movie about life and death and everything in-between.

As a documentary, Morris begins by interviewing Floyd "Mac" McClure, who had a dream of opening a pet cemetery after the death of his beloved collie. "Find a need, and fill it," McClure was taught. Unfortunately, his business fails, and the animals are dug up and transferred to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, run by John "Cal" Harberts and his sons, which thrives to this day.

Morris has always shown himself to be a canny, and trustworthy interviewer, getting his various subjects to talk about just about anything. Many interviewees talk about their pets, and some talk about whatever else happens to cross their minds. Some of the results are simple, and others are rather cosmic. The woman that says: "There's your dog; your dog's dead. But where's the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn't it?" has to be some kind of great philosopher.

Gates of Heaven makes no effort to connect anything. There's no narration, and no journalistic investigation of anything anyone says. It's just average people talking about a subject that puts at the edge of life, and makes them feel open to all kinds of ideas.

The most famous legend around this movie is the one in which filmmaker Werner Herzog bet that he would eat his shoe if Morris ever finished it and had it shown at a public movie theater. Herzog lost the bet and gamely paid his price. Director Les Blank chronicled it in the short film Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Meanwhile, Gates of Heaven lives on.

In 2015, the Criterion Collection released a great new Blu-ray edition. It's not the kind of movie that will dazzle you with its technical brilliance, but this low-budget documentary has nonetheless been restored to the quality of a new film print, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack; and it's certainly one of the few documentaries that can be viewed again and again.

The disc includes Morris's 55-minute follow-up film, Vernon, Florida (1981), which aired on public television. It also includes the aforementioned Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, a great 20-minute interview with Morris on Gates and another interview for Florida. The liner notes includes an essay by Eric Hynes.

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