Documentaries are said to be at the mercy of their subjects and to an extent that’s true. But then how do you explain that time and time again, the best ones are being made by the same directors like Werner Herzog, Steve James, the Maysles brothers, and certainly Errol Morris? Are they just luckier than everyone else? Herzog is famous for inventing storylines when his subjects aren’t up to snuff and James and the Maysles pick typically ripe subjects like innercity gangs or The Rolling Stones (though James was still blessed with extraordinarily good luck with Hoop Dreams). But how about Morris, who returns again to ordinary people and their obsessions? I know a 90-minute documentary about what I love would make for a stullifying bore, yet you can call Morris’s work many things but boring would not be one of them. Is it luck?
In Gates of Heaven, Morris’s debut and finest acheviement, an old woman, who is only weakly connected to the movie’s overall story produces a remarkable monologue touching on any number of topics without a single question being asked. Surely, Morris and his crew must have been thrilled that they stumbled upon this fount of humanity named Florence Rasmussen, the old lady who acts as the centerpiece between Gates of Heaven’s two acts.
The story of Gates of Heaven is a little complicated, in fact, if there’s a complaint about the film and its maker is that it is difficult to tell exactly what happened and who the main actors are. This is a trait that Morris has exhibited all the way up to his latest effort, Tabloid. There is no voiceover narration in Gates of Heaven, or even titles announcing the names or occoupations of the interviewees so the exact details of what goes on in the story are a little muddy. This would matter a lot more to a more traditional film but Morris, like many great documentarians, is about feelings more than facts, and those come through crystal clear in Gates of Heaven, which is about the shutting down of a pet cemetery and the movement of more than 400 corpses to a second pet cemetery. In the first half we meet Floyd McClure who, ever since his childhood collie was run over, has wanted to run a pet cemetery. He briefly got his chance. His investors discuss the land and their distaste of the nearby rendering plant, the very existence of which they find abhorrent. For his part, the operator at the plant, well aware of his business’s reputation, cheerfully explains how people get nauseated when his line is discussed and pridefully brags that his plant handled an elephant from the zoo, but he knows something too, that what he does is more essential to civilization than burying pets. I know firsthand the connection a person can have with an animal and I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who would want to respectfully bury their pet, but I think we can all agree that pet burial is a luxury. A lesser film would have pitched its story as one of the crude greedy industrialist, inhumanely using dead animals for food products, soap, or whatever other abominations they want to foist onto the world, versus the small man and his big dream of giving peace to poor pet owners. Having seen inane and stupid documentaries like Food Inc, and If A Tree Falls, I know there’s a market for this kind of picture. Morris wisely avoids this trap, in fact, its impossible to tell what he thinks about anybody in his movies, a trait that is deadly in fiction films but essential for documentaries.
Morris’s approach is very simple, he sets up the camera, he presumably asks questions and the interviewee responds directly into the camera. The camera moves very little and the angles are straightforward. In Gates of Heaven there is little in the way of style, in later movies Morris will get more proficient in editing packages of b-roll to show while interviewees are talking but with mixed results, and in Gates of Heaven he stays on them, cutting away only to make an effective point. Take for example, in the second half of the movie when we are introduced the Harberts, the owners of Bubbling Wells Cemetary, where 450 dead animals from McClure’s cemetery have been moved, we are given two or three interviews with Calvin, the patriarch and his son Phil, new to the business. We get to know them, Calvin is reserved and thoughtful, Phil is headstrong and full of vague business philosphies and truthisms that fall somewhere shy of poignancy. It is then that we are taken into Phil’s office, bedecked with trophies and certificates from his previous job in insurance. We cut to Calvin and his sparse desk, with just a name plate and a handsome globe as company. That right there relates a lot more than just the differences between those two individuals, but says something about generations and the nature of success.
The movie is full of other profound moments. McClure says, “When I turn my back I don’t know you, not truly, but I can turn my back on my little dog and I know that he’s not going to jump on me or bite me. But human beings can’t be that way.” True enough, but later he says “A pet-cemetery business is not a fast-buck scheme, it’s not a suede-shoe game.” What on earth is a suede-shoe game and who could possibly think of making a fast-buck in it?
We see plenty of pet owners who discuss their loss, including a lady who makes a nearly perfect argument for the existence of a soul when she says, “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 also a woman who sings to her dog and it sings back to her and a lady with an ascot sitting in front of a portrait of her late poodle. Framed photographs or animals show up often in Gates of Heaven. We are treated to Cal Halberts in action as he presides over a funeral of sorts for Ceasar, an Austrailian sheepdog and terrier mix, which Cal wants to welcome into “our pet family.” With great empathy and grace, Halberts observes a photograph of Ceasar, given to him by his owner (it seems that Ceasar was his dog, more than his wife’s), “You know, I feel like I know him,” he says upon looking at the photo, echoing McClure’s statement about trust. “Did he have a coat!”
We see the headstones of the graves, many with inspiring, heartfelt messages. One points out that God spelled backwards is Dog. One headstone has the name of a cat, Andy, followed by “Our beautiful son.” The cat was alive for a year. And that’s really what Gates of Heaven is about, obsession. The problem with pet ownership is that no one else can understand exactly how much that animal meant to you. This is true of people’s children, but with pets, people see “just a cat” when really that cat was one of the most important things in someone’s world. Labeling a cat, “Our beautiful Son” on a headstone might seem crazy, but that’s how it feels to a pet owner.
Morris’s film resulted in two movies, Gates of Heaven, of course, but also Les Blank’s Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, in which Blank shows the director living up to his promise that if Morris ever finished a film, he would consume his own footwear. The short film shows Herzog, at a Berkeley premiere of Gates of Heaven, more or less calling the audience fools and cowards for not making their own films, between mouthfuls of his boiled boot. Blank already made the definitive documentary about Herzog’s obsession with movie making, Burden of Dreams, but in his intensity and drive, he is the perfect Morris subject.