Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, April 4, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (1978)

Over the years, I've learned a few things about my self as a film reviewer: Some movies are easier to write about then others. I have no problem rambling on and on about horror or action. It's much more difficult to probe why a comedy works or fails. Really good or really bad movies are very easy to write about. Mediocre movies are the most difficult films to discuss. The Director Report Card project was always meant to expand my horizons as a film fan and writer. Today, I start a retrospective for Errol Morris, my favorite documentary filmmaker. This also means I'm going to be writing about a lot of documentaries for the next week or so, obviously. Non-fiction films present their own challenges. Luckily, an Errol Morris movie always leaves the viewer with a lot to think about. Let's start.

1. Gates of Heaven

“Gates of Heaven” is a movie it took many years for me to see. During one of many journeys through the IMDb, I came upon the film, described as an off-beat documentary about a pet cemetery. A little more searching around discover that Roger Ebert, the leading authority for all suburban cinema seekers, recommended the film very highly. Ebert not only listed “Gates of Heaven” among his Great Movies but also considered it one of the best films ever made. At the time, “Gates of Heaven” was only available on a hard-to-find, long out-of-print VHS. Eventually, the film was released on DVD, in a box set with Errol Morris’ other early films. Today, you can even buy it on Blu-Ray, courtesy of the Criterion Collection. That much sought first viewing left quite on impression on me. Every viewing of “Gates of Heaven” has had a similar affect.

“Gates of Heaven” chronicles two very different pet cemeteries. The first was a passion project of a wheelchair bound man, Floyd “Mac” McClure. Disgusted with rendering plants, Floyd endeavors to open a pet cemetery in order to give pets – beloved friends and companions – a dignified burial. However, not all the paper work on the location was signed and filled out correctly, leading to Floyd’s business being closed down. The deceased pets are transported to Bubbling Well Memorial Park, a pet cemetery run by a man and his two eccentric sons.

In his debut film, and many others that would follow, Errol Morris employs a style unlike most documentaries. There is no voice-over narration. Instead, the interviewees talk directly into the camera, relating their stories personally. It’s less like watching a movie and more like having a long conversation with someone. Any other information the watcher receives is through images or editing. Morris calls this “InterroTron,” the subjects re-examining their own stories as they tell them. In a way, it even seems to remove the filmmaker from the equation. “Gates of Heaven” seems more interested in telling the story of these people then expressing the filmmaker’s point of view.

Notoriously, when Werner Herzog heard that Morris was making a movie about a pet cemetery, he famously wagered that he’d eat his shoes if the film was finished. (Showing he’s a good sport, Herzog followed through with his end of the agreement as documented in a Les Blank short film.) Perhaps Werner undervalued what pets mean to people. I’ve lived with three dogs in my life and I’ve loved each one like a family member, like a friend. In “Gates of Heaven,” the interviewed people discuss in great lengths what the companionship of a dog or cat has meant to them. Floyd McClure talks about holding his dying collie in his arms, weeping. An old woman mentions a pet cat that kept her company even after her own family ignored her. The warmth and playfulness an animal provides is as real as any human friendship. And when that life is over, the grief is just as devastating. Any one who has ever lost a beloved pet is likely to be moved by the testimonials displayed in “Gates of Heaven.”

Of course, to say that “Gates of Heaven” is just about a pet cemetery isn’t entirely accurate. In the film’s first half, Floyd McClure discusses the impression stepping into a rendering plant had on him. He repeatedly refers to the place as hell on Earth. Cutting between McClure explaining his motivation behind starting a pet cemetery is an interview with the owner of the local rendering plant. Morris’ unerring camera gives his subjects plenty of room to hang themselves. The rendering plant owner comes off as a callous businessman, not concerned for how people feel about animals, only seeing profits in what he does. In comparison, McClure’s motivation is heartfelt and sincere, expounding on a spiritual belief to honor loved ones. When Floyd’s business is shut down, paperwork and agreements are blamed. Through these scenes, a conflict between commerce and spiritual convictions form.

The second half of “Gates of Heaven” is the first example of a type of film Morris would make many times. He gives the floor to the owners and proprietors of the Bubbling Well Memorial Park. Each person explains their method, coming off as eccentric in their own way. The father who runs the place seemingly balances the concerns for business and dignity contrasted in the first half. While often reminding the viewer that he wants to make some money, the man also handles the customers with grace and care, insuring that the dead pets are treated respectfully. His wife explains the symbolic importance of the pet cemetery’s name. His two sons couldn’t come off as more different. The youngest smokes pot, hangs out in a hammock, and plays his guitar over the park. It’s a peaceful, hippy-ish existence. The other son, newer to this business, approaches his new position with the mind of a salesman. He parrots phrases and formulated quotations to explain his motivations. The scenes are sort of funny, sort of sad, and oddly touching.

Some viewers have been critical of Errol Morris, saying the documentarian is mocking or belittling his subjects. There is, indeed, an element of comedy in “Gates of Heaven.” A woman is abruptly introduced, due to the film’s naturalistic editing, singing atonally with her small dog. A later interview shows an old woman rambling off-topic. During the continuous take, she complains about her son and, at one point, is even distracted by the sounds of an off-screen car. The eccentricities of the sons in the second half provide a few chuckles. I don’t think Morris is maliciously mocking his interview subjects. Instead, he allows them to present their own personalities. It’s real life and real life is sometimes funny, even when it’s also sad.

Through “Gates of Heaven’s” run time, it becomes apparent that Morris is using the subject of a pet cemetery to ask bigger questions about death. A long sequence is devoted to the funeral service of a deceased pet. Bubbling Wells’ owner chats with the husband and wife. They show a picture of the dog, making it clear how much he meant to them. Grieving family members discuss loosing their beloved animals and how giving them a proper burial is somehow cathartic. One of the interviews says something oddly profound. “Death isn’t so much for the dead.” Of course not. The dead don’t know. The rite of burial is for the living left behind, allowing them to meditate on the significance of the lost loved one.

Other heady themes emerge. “Gates of Heaven” concerns itself with the value of life and love. The film concludes with a silent montage of animal head stones. Some carry hokey messages or phrases, like “doggone!” Others simply note that a beloved friend and companion rests here. Without any music, it mirrors the experience of walking through a cemetery. The sequence could bring anyone to tears. The mysteries of the afterlife inevitably come up. Some are sure we are reunited with our loved ones, even the furry ones, after death. Others can’t pretend to know. Yet these wishes for reunion show how hope can spring from death, how the promise of love is revisited in the memories we have of the dead.

“Gates of Heaven” begins with a simple root, using the idea to examine some of the biggest questions every single person grapples with. These universal truths and quarries are not presented dryly or scientifically. Instead, “Gates of Heaven” is achingly humane, the bereaved given room to discuss the many things they’re feeling. Morris’ presentation may seem frilless, even stagnant, yet he allows the bigger story to peak through. The every day humor balances out the proceedings, given the audience more to feel than just meloncholey. Roger Ebert’s assertion that “Gates of Heaven” is one of the greatest films of all time is hard to say. Yet the film is incredibly powerful and touching, a singular experience that examines what it means to be human by looking at animals. [Grade: A]   

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