Gates of Heaven

This brilliant if very depressing documentary always makes Roger Ebert’s list of top ten greatest movies of all time. See it and see why. Just don’t count on smiling for about two days afterward. Errol Morris takes his camera around California and interviews various people involved in pet cemeteries. The first person we meet, Floyd McClure, opened his cemetery as his lifelong dream after his dog was killed; he saw his dream wither away when the cemetery went belly-up and more than 450 animal corpses had to be disinterred and moved. We see some people whose pets had been buried there, but the woman who makes the most vivid impression is Florence Rasmussen, who for some reason goes off-topic and starts talking about her lousy son. Morris keeps the camera on her anyway, and this is where Gates of Heaven starts to enter Maysles or Wiseman territory.

Morris moves on to Cal Harberts, who started his own cemetery with the animals left over from McClure’s land. We don’t get to know him as well as we do his two sons, Phil and Dan, who help run the cemetery. Phil is a former insurance salesman who’s listened to one too many motivational tapes. He seems to be psyching himself up to deal with the remainder of his dull life. Dan is a would-be rock musician who drags his amp outside and practices when nobody is around. The sound of his guitar riffs bouncing off the pet gravestones is incredibly sad and chilling.

Did Morris set out to make a quirky documentary about what some would consider a trivial subject? He came back with an unforgettable mood piece about human loneliness, in which the mourned pets seem much more important than if they had been the movie’s true focus (not much time is given to reminiscences about pets). It’s true, it’s life, and it makes you want to do anything to avoid ending up like any of these people — except maybe Floyd McClure, who comes off as a gentle visionary.

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