Movie of the Month: Gates of Heaven (1978)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Alli made Brandon , Boomer, and Britnee watch Gates of Heaven (1978).

Alli: Told in a series of interviews, Gates of Heaven is about pet cemeteries. Two feuding parties fight ideologically and legally for control over the final resting place of people’s beloved animals. Originally, Floyd McClure, a bleeding heart dog lover, is dead set on his belief that pets deserve better than to just be taken to a rendering facility after he was traumatized living near one in his childhood. He is not a business man. Out of the goodness of his heart, he buys a plot of land with the help of investors, and begins to assist in comforting people as they shepherd their pets onto the next life. Of course, not being a business man, and being totally dedicated to the idea of helping people in their grief, his cemetery goes out of business. All the animals get exhumed in a dramatic spectacle, and are moved to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, upsetting many of the pet owners. Bubbling Well is run by the Harberts. The Harberts are intolerable rich people solely in the business for the money, with two down-on-their-luck, basically loser sons who flock back to the nest to get jobs at the cemetery.

The contrast between these two groups results in a documentary not just about pet death and grief, but about human nature. There are those who are earnestly out to help people, and those who don’t believe in the cause. There’s the genuine and the facade, and the poor grieving people stuck in between.

Gates of Heaven is the first documentary I truly fell in love with. It was the first time I watched people being interviewed on screen, and thought, “This is it. This is what I want to do.” I went to film school, probably because of it. It taught me that you don’t need a big budget, fancy equipment, or A-list stars to make a movie about anything. All you need is some chairs, a few eccentrics, and the time to let them talk. I obviously haven’t done much filmmaking or interviewing of eccentrics (YET!) but my strong love of the documentary format lives on.

Werner Herzog famously dared Errol Morris that he couldn’t make a whole documentary about this “unlikely” subject matter, and that if he did, Herzog would eat his shoe. He lost that bet, and the shoe eating is documented in a short shot by Les Blank. To me, since truth is very often stranger than fiction, this doesn’t seem like that wild of a subject to make a feature-length documentary about. I may be viewing this through the lens of the present where there’s a very great documentary, Helvetica, about the history of a font, but to me, the topic of death as a commercial industry in general is full of possibilities.  Britnee, were you impressed that there’s a whole documentary about the conflict between two pet cemeteries? Or do you, like me, believe in the power of film to bring out the weird in the mundane?

Britnee: Other than the spooky Stephen King film, there’s not much out there in the film world about pet cemeteries, at least not that I’m aware of. Gates of Heaven provides a unique view into the world of pet cemeteries while stirring up loads of thought-provoking questions (“Do dogs really go to heaven?,” “Why are there so many assholes in this world?”). It reminded me of Grey Gardens a bit. Not only were the two films from the same time period, but they both focus on eccentric folks disguised as white-bread Americans. Between the middle-aged woman showing off her chubby, black chihuahua’s talking skills and the twenty-something year old playing his guitar outside with the pet cemetery as a backdrop, there’s never a dull moment. It’s sort of like a Wes Anderson film except nothing is scripted. These are real people talking about real things. I love it all so much!  Needless to say, I was very impressed with Gates of Heaven, and it is definitely one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.

Gates of Heaven changed my perspective of what the average American pet owner was like in the late 1970s. When my family members and friends that grew up during the 1960s/1970s share those back-in-the-day stories, I never once heard of a pet being like a member of the family. Pets were never allowed inside of the house, much less given kisses and snuggles. They were referred to as “animals,” and they were so far below the level of the superior human being. When they died, they were never given a proper burial. The image of a dog on a chain in the backyard with a little wooden doghouse and a cat sleeping under the carport is how I imagined most pets during that era. It was heartwarming to see that there were people who looked to their pets as equals and loved them unconditionally.

Brandon, this documentary was made almost 40 years ago. What do you think today’s version of Gates of Heaven would be like?

Brandon: Besides the insight into historical attitudes towards pets, the most distinctly 1970s thing about this film is the way it avoids contextual narration or exposition. The story is linear and not exactly in medias res, but the most editorializing Morris imposes on the film is in the meticulous composition of individual shots (Britnee’s Wes Anderson comparison is dead-on) and whatever footage he chose to excise in editing. Otherwise, the story is told entirely by its subjects, who speak plainly in oral history-style interviews. This feels true to the matter-of-fact documentary style of the era, considering contemporary works like (to call back to already-cited documentarians) the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens or Les Blank’s Always for Pleasure. If Gates of Heaven were made decades later by a different director, I believe the impulse would have been for the filmmaker to impose their own personality & worldview on the interviews in the name of being ”honest” about how their perspective shapes what’s supposedly documented reality. Think of the way modern Werner Herzog “documentaries” are essentially essay films about how Herzog himself sees the world, more than they are a presentation of unaltered facts. I think keeping a personal distance from editorializing about its subjects was a smart move in this case, as it allows Morris to profile these strange, real-world characters with a clear fascination for their quirks without ever quite leaning into his (possibly ironic) amusement with them. His style was later borrowed for outright comedy by mockumentary goof-em-ups like Best in Show (and every other Christopher Guest joint, really) & Documentary Now, but the tone is much more delicate & distant here, avoiding pure “Getta load of this freak show” cruelty. I suspect a more modern, Herzogian approach with Morris’s authorial voice framing the interviews might have tipped it in the wrong direction.

The question isn’t what Gates of Heaven would be like if Herzog made it in 2005 as a follow-up to Grizzly Man, though; the question is what it would be like if it were made today. I think modern filmmakers have learned a lot form Herzog’s embrace of documentaries’ inherent subjectivity (as opposed to earlier films’ embarrassed denial of it), but they’ve taken the art form in an entirely new direction from his This Is Really About Me philosophy pieces. The most exciting modern examples of the medium, the ones that avoid Wikipedia-in-motion tedium, are the ones that mix performed fictions, found footage abstractions ,and multimedia collage structures to guide their tone. Weirdo art projects like Heart of a Dog, Rat Film, Flames, The World is Mine, Swagger, The Nightmare, and Faces Places blur the line that divides the documentary and the essay film as separate mediums. They’re as heavy on first-person editorializing as a typical Herzog doc, but also include blatantly artificial performance & other forms of stylized artistic expression with their “real life” documentation to the point where what’s real and what’s fiction would be totally up for debate. Gates of Heaven was radical in its time for affording an oddball subject a dry, matter-of-fact academic treatment. If it were to be equally radical in 2018, it’d probably include sock puppet reenactments of interviewees’ anecdotes or Morris himself purchasing a plot for his own dead pet or a lengthy visual essay about the process of physical decay for a small animal body and how that relates to some economic us-vs.-them political philosophy. There’s no telling if it would be nearly as good of a film if it were made with a 2010s sensibility, but I can guarantee it wouldn’t be as dry or editorially distanced. Even Errol Morris’s own recent work on the experimental, LSD-influenced documentary Wormwood hints at that cultural shift.

Boomer, Morris’s style here obviously depends on his interview subjects to tell a compelling story (or at least tell a mundane story in a compelling way), but I found it curious which subjects he chose to afford the most attention. Most of my favorite interviewees in the film were the pet owners who employed the services of the cemetery, but it seems Morris was more personally invested in the conflict between the people who maintained its daily operation (for love or for profit). Do you think the movie could have used more (dead) pet owner profiles or would that have risked tipping it too far in the direction of Christopher Guest quirk humor?

Boomer: I actually feel like there was just enough balance between the proprietors and the patrons of the two pet cemeteries to prevent the film from becoming either too maudlin or too tongue-in-cheek. In general, there was a distinct tendency toward sentiment among the (for lack of a better word) mourners, which is sensible but not exactly what I expected. To me, the very idea of an organized pet cemetery seems incredibly bourgeois, although it makes sense in the context of a more urbanized area than the one in which I grew up. When our beloved eighteen-year-old cat Tabitha died in 2003, we were able to bury her in the back field between two trees next to the pond, but those living in an apartment building like I do now, or in suburban areas with overzealous and overreaching HOAs, don’t have that luxury. And while I would consider the more sensible thing to do would be having a memorial in the home (with or without your furbaby’s cremains), I understand the desire for something more traditional.

The couples who were interviewed were interesting, but the MVPs of those who were on the mourning end are those who were interviewed alone. First is Florence Rasmussen, with her long-winded, meandering, unbroken speech about her son (really her grandson) and his car, which she bought for him (really gave him $400 for, or the equivalent of $1,597.15 in 2018), and her desire to get out and do more (even though she also says that she “gets around pretty well”). Hers is a ramble that is mired in contradiction and a narrative of self-promotion and self-interest that effectively demonstrates the depth of her neuroses (and probably dementia). I also loved the feud between Zella Graham (she of the howling chihuahua) and Lucille Billingsley (her nemesis). The differences between how the two are framed, with Graham and her living pet in a welcoming-if-kitschy dining area in her home against Billingsley in her baroque wingback chair beneath a framed portrait of her departed darling, says a lot about each woman, which is only reinforced by the issues that each takes with the other: Billingsley speaks about larger concerns and barely thinks of Graham at all, while Graham’s diatribe is all about Billingsley’s apparent pretentiousness and flaunting of her wealth, like showing up at the graveyard in her luxury car and adorned with furs (a telling detail in how Billingsley sees the “hierarchy” of animals) to complain about the disinterment at McClure’s failed cemetery. Their pettiness lends the whole affair a surreality that elevates the documentary from simple investigation into something more. The interviews with couples may add to this feeling, especially with regards to the woman who appears on the poster and gives a speech about her idiosyncratic conception of the cosmos and the place of humans and animals within it; unlike a Guest film, however, where the two people on screen would be characters and not real people and thus would be intentionally written more comedically to play off of each other, these scenes are more about two people in parallel than in counterpoint.

Overall, I found the Harberts clan and Floyd McClure more compelling than their customers. Forgive me for not using names as much as I would like to under normal circumstances; the lack of identifying information about who all of these people were was a source of frustration for me over the course of the documentary (not that I didn’t love it overall). Among McClure’s friends and contemporaries, I was never quite certain who was who, or if the minister with whom McClure had a handshake deal that from what I could discern was the root cause of his cemetery’s demise was one of those interviewed or not. Even though my sympathies lie with McClure, as his devotion to his collie led him to spend his life trying to create a space in which pets could be mourned, my investment in both parties was split pretty evenly, although for different reasons. I felt like we got very little information about McClure in comparison the Harbertses, despite him being more open about his feelings, as we saw more of their candid lives. The dichotomy between rich and . . . well, not poor, but middle class was an element of the feud between Billingsley and Graham, and we see that writ large in the difference between McClure and the Harbertses. McClure is a man whose interview occurs in a small home with little decoration, while the youngest Harberts son tells the camera that when he wasn’t sure where his life was going, he knew he could come home and have his own house, even if it is the one by the chicken coop. The elder son’s discussion of his previous work as a motivational speaker is largely done from behind a desk full of trophies and in front of a wall of awards as he talks about how he used to use those same trophies and awards to create a rhetorical space with potential clients, droning on almost hypnotically while demonstrating why he was such a success in that arena, apparently with no intentionality informing his “performance.” There’s so much that’s being communicated in these frames: the banality of wealth, the sumptuousness and self-aggrandizement of his office in comparison to his father’s (which is less ornate on the whole but has that ridiculous name plate done up in Old London Gothic typeface that almost seems to dominate the frame despite taking up so little of it), the look of quiet resignation and resentment on his face when relating that he understand and accepts that he is the “third” (read: last) person in the chain of command at the cemetery.

That is true filmic storytelling, which is notable given that documentaries generally attempt to tell the truth from an unbiased perspective (give or take your Michael Moores and your Dinesh D’Souzas). I found myself truly fascinated by the surroundings of the interviewees, none more so than when McClure was speaking from what appeared to be his den. He never mentions a wife or child at all when relating the oral history of his failed endeavor, which makes the pair of bronzed baby booties behind him a total curiosity to me. The same can be said of the yellow document hanging from the doorknob in Graham’s kitchen and the bizarre red fake flower(?) that foreground the interviews with Mrs. Harberts. For me, these were just as intriguing as the stories themselves. Given that Morris’s intention was to present an unbiased account (to the extent that such a thing is possible), I’m not sure how much directorial input was given with regards to placement when giving these interviews, but some of the locations seem too perfect to be anything other than staged. For instance, both of the Harberts men we see in their offices speak directly from behind the desk as if we are meeting with them, while our “meeting” with the manager of the tallow rendering plant frames the plant itself behind him through his window, giving those speeches a more casual vibe. Alli, as you’ve seen this film more than the rest of us have, what insights do you have into this particular rhetoric in this film: the composition of the mise en scène as it applies to homes and offices as meant to evoke a particular response? What speaks to you, and what doesn’t?

Alli: As far as filmmaking goes, I always assume that everything in front of the camera is intentional or an intentionally included accident. Even a more matter-of-fact documentary is still a controlled and directed piece of art, and some of those backgrounds were a little too composed to be just there. They’re made to be an extension of the interviewee’s character. The rendering plant manager is shown with his life’s work, grotesque as it is. There’s no way for him to put on self important airs with the plant in the background. He’s a link to the reality of the world as opposed to McClure’s idealism and the Harbert’s affected manner. If I had to guess about the baby boots behind McClure, they were a subtle hint at his innocence and maybe even infantilizing this naive man. The fake flower behind Mrs. Harberts is a bit on the nose in this reading.

Despite the matter of fact feel, the whole composition and placement of shots show some editorial bias. There’s a shot of a man that’s from uncomfortably crotch height that feels like it’s highlighting his man of the 70’s masculinity. There’s the scene with the younger Harberts son where you can see his pot plants in the background where you know exactly what kind of lifestyle he leads. So much of Morris’s views are hidden in what’s with the subject in the frame and how they’re placed. Even if there’s no voice-over or direct explanations, he’s manipulating you into drawing conclusions about these people. He doesn’t blatantly try to villainize or place judgement on his subjects, but there are subtle hints at how he feels about them. As far as what affected me most this particular viewing, I got to re-experience my negative feelings for the older Harberts son, but his backgrounds seem the most incidental to me, as if Morris let him call the shots a little bit, because of course this man wants to be seen with the backdrop of his achievements and his swimming pool. And it makes the irony of his unexplained failure in the motivational speaker arena all the more delicious.

Britnee, did you have a favorite or least favorite interview subject?

Britnee: Of all the fabulous interviewees in Gates of Heaven, I would have to say my favorite interview subject was Floyd McClure. He brought so much heart and innocence to the screen. It was endearing to see that he was in the pet cemetery business for all the right reasons. I became so invested in his cause just within the few minutes of him speaking, so my heart was completely broken when it was revealed that he lost his business. There’s no doubt in my mind that he was put on this earth to help bring comfort for those who lose their beloved pets, but the greedy world we live in prevented him from fulfilling his purpose. I hope that when it’s time for me to bury/cremate my pets that there will be someone like McClure to assist me with such a difficult process.

Even though McClure was my favorite interview subject, I can’t help but feel as though I would have the best time hanging out with the pet owners. I can talk about my cat and dog for hours, and sometimes people will give me the “Please shut up” look. Thankfully, New Orleans is a city filled with dog lovers, so more often than not, the stranger I’m talking with will share my enthusiasm. The singing dog lady reminds me of the eccentric folks that I always run into at the dog park and feed stores. Singing Dog Lady would understand me, and I would totally schedule some puppy play dates with her and her dog.

Brandon, you mentioned earlier that you enjoyed the pet owners in the documentary. As a pet owner yourself, did you recognize an similarities between yourself and the pet owners being interviewed?

Brandon: If there’s one major commonality I see in myself it’s sentimentality. I never had pets outside a fish tank growing up and my first pet as an adult, a large black cat, simply disappeared when he died (presumably hit by a car). As a result, I’ve never had to truly deal with the physical remains of a beloved animal that couldn’t be swept away with the flush of a toilet and I can only presume I won’t handle that grief especially well when my dog (who is getting relatively old . . .) inevitably dies. Interviewees singing to their animals or treating them with the same respect they’d extend to a human member of their family is relatable in a broad sense, but what’s more idiosyncratically captured here is the sentimentality pets inspire in their owners. I don’t think I would ever pay for my dog to be buried in a proper cemetery, but I could easily see keeping her skull or ashes or taxidermy model around the house as a visual reminder of her. The result is essentially the same: sentimental clutter. I empathize deeply with the sentimentality that could lead an animal lover to pay extraordinary amounts of money to have their pets buried properly, as opposed to the posthumous disrespect of having their remains hauled off to the dump with the rest of our pedestrian trash. The truth is, though, that I don’t think that impulse is a necessarily healthy one, which is partly why it’s so grotesque that there are people on hand so willing to exploit it. To me, the capitalist villains of Gates of Heaven are the ones profiting off the sentimentality of their customers while pretending to share their emotional investment in the pet cemetery business as a sign of respect for the dead, when it’s really just like any another racket to them.

As such, I find the racket chosen by the rendering plant operator to be less blatantly evil than the one of the wealthy couple who usurp Mr. McClure’s business. You’d think that as a pet owner I’d be offended by the business model of selling off animal corpses as raw biproduct materials, but that honestly sounds more useful & practical to me than allowing the emotional clutter of animals (that are never coming back, nor care about how well you treat their remains) to fill up otherwise useful land. Since Gates of Heaven consciously avoids editorializing, it’s difficult to tell where the movie’s POV falls on this secondary dead animals racket, which is just as shrewdly capitalistic as the pet cemetery business, just with cruder honesty. Boomer, where do you think the rendering plant business lands on Gates of Heaven’s moral compass? Does the movie express an opinion on it either way or does it leave that philosophical quandary entirely to its audience?

Boomer: The biggest parallel that I see between participants in this film is between the rendering plant manager and the elder Harberts brother. Both are professional men in that late-thirties/early-forties stage of life, both with an air of authority despite the area of their respective expertises being either physically gross (rendering animals into tallow) or emotionally manipulative (as Alli notes, capitalizing on people’s grief). The difference is that Harberts has the decency to be embarrassed about his station in life, even if his hand-wringing is about the fact that he now reports to his stoner younger brother. Mr. Rendering Plant, on the other hand, grins like Patrick Bateman while describing how people react when they find out about his line of work, going so far as to recall, with great mirth, how a woman who, despite being unable to see the actual process of rendering from anywhere in their office building, was so “bothered in her mind” by what they were doing that she could not tolerate working there. Perhaps this is a rhetorical cheat as we see him counterposed against Floyd McClure, whose greatest sin in life was loving animals too much and being too trusting in people’s good nature; however, there is something truly unsettling about how defensive the rendering plant manager is when discussing his business and his complete and utter inability to understand how someone could be shocked or disgusted by the fact that he boils people’s dogs and horses until they can be used for glue or candles. I’m not a big fan of people who laugh while reminiscing about lying to the public about what became of the local elephant. 

Lagniappe

Britnee: I had no idea what a rendering plant was until watching Gates of Heaven, and I cannot believe that pet owners were bringing their dead pets to such a terrible place to have them disposed of like garbage. What part or parts of a household animals is being rendered and what is it used for? It’s just so sad and disturbing. By the way it was talked about in the documentary, it seems like taking dead pets to rendering plants was the norm, and I really hope this isn’t a thing anymore. 

Alli: I’m a big critic of the death industry as a whole and Americans’ lack of acceptance of death as a personal expererience. People in this country pay exorbitant amounts of money for strangers to handle and dress their dead, such an intimate process. This isn’t as common in other parts of the world as it is here. I love my cats like they’re my children, so I would never leave their burying and handling to people who run what basically feels like a satire of an actual cemetery. It just goes to show that the predatory nature of the funeral industry, much like death, knows no bounds. No matter what your species, people will try to take advantage of your family’s desire to distance themselves from the grief. One thing that’s always struck me about this documentary is the subtle way it examines the psychology of all of this. Premium spots are glorified over different, cheaper areas of the cemetery, subconsciously telling people, “If you really loved your pet, you’d pay for us to do this.” Basically, the commodification of grief is an extremely, grossly American phenomenon and it’s interesting to see it laid out so transparently in the form of pet grief.

Boomer: The thing that I found most fascinating about the interviewees is that even the most out-of-it like Florence and a sweet/simple country bumpkin like Floyd had such a delightfully flexible and voluminous vocabulary. When Florence states that her pet corpses were moved to “that place that commences with a ‘B’,” I was surprised. It’s amazing how even people that could be considered simple-minded, senile, or even stupid engaged in a level of discourse that’s so much higher than the one in which we live now.

Brandon: Before viewing this film, the Errol Morris documentary I was most familiar with was Thin Blue Line, which absolutely bowled me over with its intense Philip Glass score. It’s appropriate, then, that one of the most memorable moments of Gates of Heaven for me was a musical one. When the cemetery owners’ loser son plays arena rock guitar at the edge of the cliff on his family’s shitty, animal corpse-laden property, the gap between the image in his head and the one we’re seeing onscreen is remarkably vast. It’s a perfect microcosm of the movie’s delicately comical, oddly tragic tone at large, an image that’s stuck with me for much longer than I expected it to when I first met it with a light chuckle.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Brandon presents Born in Flames (1983)
August: Britnee presents The Honeymoon Killers (1970)
September: Boomer presents Live Freaky! Die Freaky! (2006)

-The Swampflix Crew

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3 thoughts on “Movie of the Month: Gates of Heaven (1978)

  1. Pingback: Werner Herzog, Gates of Heaven (1978), and the Artistic Value of the Side Show Publicity Stunt | Swampflix

  2. Pingback: Best in Show (2000)’s Comedic Perversion of Gates of Heaven (1978) | Swampflix

  3. Pingback: Errol Morris vs Small Town Eccentrics | Swampflix

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