Mortal Thoughts

The story goes like this. German director Werner Herzog made a bet with aspiring filmmaker Errol Morris that if the latter ever completed the film he was working on – which was inspired by a news story about the mass relocation of the graves from a California pet cemetery – he would eat his shoe. Morris did indeed complete his film, which was called Gates of Heaven (1978) and, true to his word, Herzog boiled and ate his show at the film’s premiere in Berkeley. Filmmaker Les Blank recorded the event and turned it into a documentary short entitled Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe in 1980.  

Pet cemetery owner Floyd McClure ponders the fate of Foothill Memorial Gardens in Gates of Heaven (1978), directed by Errol Morris.

The real surprise is that Gates of Heaven does not feel like a debut film or a movie made by a first time director. The film’s highly idiosyncratic and original approach to its subject moved German director Wim Wenders to proclaim it “a masterpiece” in its rough cut form and Roger Ebert became an early champion of the film. But Morris had difficulty getting the film distributed and it would be years before Gates of Heaven would be acknowledged as a film ahead of its time, one that was a true independent film before Sundance and IFC were brand names. In fact, Sundance was launched the year that Gates of Heaven was released.

A scene from the Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven (1978).

Often categorized by critics and reviewers as a documentary film, Gates of Heaven does not lend itself to easy categorization. For one thing, the movie doesn’t conform to any of the standard techniques we expect from documentaries; there is no clear agenda or editorial context from the get-go, there is no narrator and you never hear Morris asking his interviewees questions. There is also nothing natural about the way Morris chooses to light and frame his interview subjects.

A typical example of Errol Floyd’s distinctive framing of subjects in Gates of Heaven (1978).

On the surface, Gates of Heaven has two stories to tell. The first one is about Floyd McClure, the owner of the Foothill Memorial Gardens pet cemetery near San Francisco. It was his lifelong dream to give deceased animals the sort of peaceful and pastoral resting place for his clients that is typical of human cemeteries. Unfortunately McClure went bankrupt, his property was rezoned for a housing project and the remains of the 450 pets buried there were relocated to another cemetery, the Bubbling Well Memorial Park in the Napa Valley, which was owned and operated by a father and his two sons.

A scene from Errol Morris’s surreal documentary, Gates of Heaven (1978), his debut feature.

They occupy the second part of the story but bridging the two stories are interviews with McClure’s business partner, pet owners who buried their animals at the Foothill Memorial Gardens, a renderer who is completely candid about collecting dead pets and reprocessing animal byproducts, and other people who have some connection to the pet cemetery business. The movie could be described as American Gothic and it has the same unsettling and hypnotic effect that you experience while looking through a collection of Diane Arbus photographs.

A pet cemetery figures prominently in Gates of Heaven (1978), the directorial debut of Errol Morris.

In an interview with Noel Murray for the A.V. Club, Morris described Gates of Heaven as “an excursion into some very odd dreamscapes, connected with some weird version of reality. From the beginning, I would always object when people would say, “It’s the pet-cemetery movie.” No, no, no, no! It’s not about pet cemeteries. And the next question is always, “If it’s not about pet cemeteries, what is it about?” Well, that’s tricky! In essence, it embodies many of the ideas that are in every single film I’ve made. The obsession with language. Eye contact. An interest in accounts of subjective experience rather than objective reporting. The fundamental belief that if you scratch the surface of any person, you will find a world of the insane, very close to that surface.”

A pet owner and her beloved dog have a conversation in Gates of Heaven (1978), directed by Errol Morris.

Gates of Heaven continues to provoke mixed and unexpected reactions from viewers whenever it is shown. Some find it a static and uneventful talking-heads assemblage, others find moments of deadpan absurdity and high comedy in its stylized presentation and there are those who find it bleak, despairing but also quite moving. “I would call it hopeless,” Morris stated in the A.V. Club interview. “There’s a perverted hopelessness that runs through Gates of Heaven, and you have to wonder…hope for what? Life after death? Reunion with our loved ones? Hope for some kind of love, mortal or otherwise? For business success? For meaning? Hope for anything!”

A cemetery caretaker blasts his rock music across the California landscape in Gates of Heaven (1978).

Despite the fact that Morris continues to be identified as a documentary filmmaker, his unique approach to subject matter separates him from the pack. (His 2003 feature, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, won the Oscar for Best Documentary and, more recently, The Unknown Known [2013] about former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.)

Film director Errol Morris

In an interview with The Believer in April 2004, Morris stated, “I like to think that I have invented a different style of documentary. Maybe I’m not the best one to say it, it’s better if others say it, but from Gates of Heaven on – and Gates of Heaven, in its own perverse way, was in my mind anti-verite in the sense of, let’s imagine all of the stylistic requirements of verite and let’s do the exact opposite; instead of being unobtrusive, let’s be as obtrusive as possible. Put people right in front of the camera, looking directly into the lens or close to it. Light everything. Add reenacted material, or constructed material of one kind or another. The naïve idea is that because this is so much different than verite, that it’s less truthful. But that’s only because of the spurious claim that verite makes in the first place. Claims about truth-telling. But style doesn’t guarantee truth. Godard is quoted as saying, “Film is truth at 24 frames a second.’ I prefer, “Film is lies at 24 frames a second.”

A couple is interviewed by Errol Morris for his debut documentary, Gates of Heaven (1978).

At the same time, Morris doesn’t completely dismiss any adherence to the documentary tradition. “There is a documentary element in my films, a very strong documentary element, but by documentary element, I mean an element that’s out of control, that’s not controlled by me. And that element is the words, the language that people use, what they say in an interview. They’re not written, not rehearsed. It’s spontaneous, extemporaneous material.”

Floyd McClure, owner of a bankrupt pet cemetery, is interviewed in Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven (1978).

Although Gates of Heaven had its official premiere at the New York Film Festival in 1978, it didn’t get a theatrical release in the city until 1980. And when it did, The New York Times reviewer wasn’t duly impressed. Tom Buckley wrote, “Gates of Heaven is another cinema look at California grotesquerie that is rather self-consciously reminiscent of such novels as Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. What is missing is the mediation of an artistic sensibility…The film…makes its points in endless monologues that might better have provided a starting point. Everybody has a story to tell, it is said, but Gates of Heaven proves that not all of them are worth listening to, at least for an hour and a half.”

Phillip Harbert is one of the interviewees in Gates of Heaven (1978), directed by Errol Morris.

Much more receptive was this review by Michael Corvino for Film Quarterly: “This documentary doesn’t look like a documentary. Just the opposite. Gates of Heaven is beautifully filmed and edited, and composed almost entirely of long, intercut monologues that manage to hold your interest, that are compelling not because what is being said is so fascinating, or absorbing, or informative (it almost never is), but because it is being said at all, in the manner in which it is being said. People speak English but is an English so imprecise, so inexpressive, so mangled, as to have lost all meaning. One woman speaks of establishing a deep and meaningful relationship with her poodle. A young man talks about the anxiety, the fear involved in trying to find the right exit off the expressway – a real ontological ordeal! – and he sounds like Kierkegaard after a bad head injury…. The movie-goer feels like he’s occupying a listening post on the border of a foreign land inhabited by sad sacks and maniacs.”

Floyd McClure is interviewed by Errol Morris in his surreal 1978 documentary, Gates of Heavens.

The final word belongs to Roger Ebert who has remained a longtime fan of the movie and has included it in his Overlooked Film Festival in past years: “There are many invitations to laughter during this remarkable documentary, but what Gates of Heaven finally made me feel was an aching poignancy about its subjects. They say you can make a great documentary about almost anything, if only you see it well enough and truly, and this film proves it….It was filmed in Southern California, so of course we immediately anticipate a sardonic look at peculiarities of the Moonbeam State. But then Gates of Heaven grows ever so much more complicated and frightening, until at the end it is about such large issues as love, immortality, failure, and the dogged elusiveness of the American Dream.”  

Gates of Heaven was first released on DVD in 2005 by MGM. Ten years later The Criterion Collection released Gates of Heaven on Blu-ray with Morris’s second film, the equally surreal Vernon, Florida [1981], in March 2015. Supplemental features include the Les Blank short, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, two new interviews with Morris and other extras.

Werner Herzog prepares his shoe for a meal in Les Blank’s short, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1981).

Morris’s most recent film is American Dharma (2018) about Donald Trump’s political strategist Steve Bannon. It was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival.

*This is an updated and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

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