Errol Morris might not be the most well-known director of his generation, but he is certainly one of the best. His documentaries have, over the last thirty-odd years, shone light under the rocks and around the dark corners of American society and have sought to expose the various eccentricities and bizarre stories of the nation.
His debut feature, Gates of Heaven, begins by telling the story of Floyd ‘Mac’ McClure, a childlike and quite naive man who, after never quite recovering from the death of his pet collie in his adolescence, sets upon fulfilling his life’s ambition of opening a pet cemetery, and the trials and tribulations that come with the undertaking. Through the course of the film we meet different people involved with Mac’s pet cemetery, including business partners, owners of the pets buried at the cemetery, and even his main competitor down at the rendering plant. Once Mac’s story has been told, the film progresses into it’s second part, telling the story of the much more successful Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park (a pet cemetery that is still open to this day), and the Harberts family who run it.
The story is ostensibly about pet cemeteries but becomes, through the keen choice of interviewees and Morris’ nose for a narrative through the disparate statements made by those interviewees, a longer and deeper meditation on ageing and death, and people’s reflections on the afterlife. Morris has a truly wonderful ability to keep the shot just a second too long, or to reveal the motivations of his subjects without them knowing or, it seems, caring all that much. Not that Morris is ever visible or audible throughout the film; it is his strength as a documentarian that stamps his unmistakable personality over each of his films, and this one is no different.
In the end it is the subjects, more than anything, that make this film. Morris has an unbelievable knack for finding interesting-looking people with fascinating stories to tell, which is what makes his films more cinematic than those of other documentary film-makers. The mismatched dynamic between Mac and his business partners, all of whom are different but equally, slightly, odd. The Harberts family triangle of straight-shooting, no-nonsense Cal, free-wheeling hippie musician-type Dan and the wannabe-motivational speaker/former insurance sales manager Phil and the tensions that exist between them are juxtaposed by the various couples who have lost their pets, whom they treated like children.
The lack of music, narration, or fictionalised re-enactments (the latter of which would come to be a trope of his work) means that the film retains a purity and focus that his other films perhaps lack, and never becomes mawkish or sentimental in style. This film is quintessentially Morris and, while the slow pace might frustrate and annoy those not au-fait with his style, there is still much here to love and admire.
Best scene: The elderly lady sitting on her doorstep who talks at length about her ‘no good son’ before returning to the actual subject of pets.
Best line: ‘Neutered’.
Watch this if you liked: Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends.