Saturday, August 04, 2007


GATES OF HEAVEN (1980, USA, Errol Morris)
After all, 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? There's your spirit. There it is.

This film can make you cynical. Or it can break your heart. For many viewers, it does both. Memorably.

Errol Morris's first film is a markedly odd piece about pet cemeteries and the people who run them. In what became a distinctive of his documentary style, characters are not named, no interviewer steers the conversations, and there are no voice-overs to guide our response to what we are seeing. You're on your own, to make what you will of these quirky, tacky, idealistic, and possibly misguided people.

Roger Ebert famously named this eccentric little nonfiction film to his list of the Ten Greatest Films Ever Made, and writes eloquently about it in his indispensible volume of film appreciation, The Great Movies, describing it as "an underground legend, a litmus test for audiences who cannot decide if it is serious or satirical, funny or sad, sympathetic or mocking." At times an uncomfortably close observation of lower-middle class bad taste, at others a moving portrait of lost souls or failed idealism, the film ultimately evokes (but never enunciates) life and death questions that some may find troubling, others reassuring. "Do all dogs really go to heaven?" readily slips over into "Does anybody go to heaven, or is it all just something we've made up to comfort ourselves?" Ultimately, though, there's clearly something unconvincing and even self-interested in the very made-up-ness of Cal Harberts' religion, and you wonder if that's playing itself out in the lives of his two lost sons.

At the same time, for all his apparent detatchment, Morris conveys a genuine affection for the people in front of his camera: who can forget the immense, bemused compassion of Floyd McClure, whose fury at visions of family pets in garbage dumps led to the founding of the ill-fated Foothill Pet Cemetery. Whatever conclusions are drawn about the next life, I suspect GATES OF HEAVEN leaves many viewers considerably awakened to this one, and much more tender. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is among us, after all?


Available at Videomatica

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