Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “intentionally bland” debut documentary by filmmaker Errol Morris “isn’t as bizarre as one would guess from its cult reputation”, or “as revelatory as one would expect”. He describes Morris’s stylistic use “of a stationary camera” and “medium shots of his seated subjects, who are positioned so precisely within the frame that they might as well be lamps”, and points out that they “deliver lengthy monologues about animals, about life” instead of responding to interview questions. He argues (I disagree) that since the “real people” we see here are “the kind you meet every day, what they say sounds familiar”, so “you don’t react to them in one way or another” — and “if you laugh, it’s at the pathetic human condition”. Peary’s clearly not a big fan of this cult flick, though he does concede that “the montage in which we see tombstones which have animal photos and owners’ dedications comes across not as either stupid or outrageous… but as oddly touching”.
I find Gates of Heaven more inherently intriguing than Peary — though I am troubled by the fact that Morris seems to be presenting his participants in the quirkiest possible light, strategically editing and interweaving their interview clips so that they all come across as either deluded, arrogant, or ridiculous. It’s no surprise that the main cemetery on display, Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in Napa Valley, makes no mention whatsoever of the documentary on its website. One scene in particular — in which Bubbling Well’s founder fawns over a photo of a couple’s unusual-looking dog (“This is a most unusual, most unusual [dog] — I just can say I’ve never seen anything like it…”) — stands out as especially mean-spirited on Morris’s part.
Knowing the unique direction Morris would eventually take with his documentaries (i.e., his use of an “Interrotron” machine, allowing his subjects to look directly at him while speaking to the camera), this early film feels quaint, stylistically-speaking, in comparison. Yet Morris’s characteristically droll, highly philosophical approach to his material is in clear evidence: as Roger Ebert noted in his overview of the title on his “Top 10 Favorite Films” list, “Morris is not concerned with his apparent subject. He has made a film about life and death, pride and shame, deception and betrayal, and the stubborn quirkiness of human nature.” Whether one agrees with Peary’s more cynical perspective, or Ebert’s loftier one, this cult favorite should be seen at least once, simply for its notoriety.
Note: It’s interesting that Peary fails to mention that this film was the basis for Les Blank’s short documentary entitled “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe”; click here to read more about the bet that led to this event, as well as Morris’s eclectic background in general.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- A revealing, often unintentionally (?) humorous peek inside a niche industry
Yes, as a cult documentary with a notorious production bet attached to it.