Gates of Heaven, 1978, Errol Morris
Early on in Gates of Heaven, one of the interview subjects gives a quote that summarizes much of the film: “The love that people have for their pets is tremendous, something that is very, very difficult to explain.” As a pet owner for most of my life, I identify with this statement. When each pet has passed, it has been a difficult period –- almost to the level of losing a family member. For some people, losing a pet is worse than losing a family member.
At a recent film festival, we saw a short film about Cherry Pop, a Fort Lauderdale show cat with wealthy owners that lived during the 1980s. Her “parents” would buy her jewels, gave her a Rolls Royce, and spoiled her to high heaven. It was estimated that they spent $1 million on this cat. It was a neat little film with archived video footage from home movies, and I can think of fewer examples of someone loving a pet as much as this family. It was ridiculous that they spent all that money, but the feeling in their hearts was genuine. When they lost Cherry Pop, they were devastated.
The opposite is also true. There are many who see animals as packages of flesh with no real purpose. Since they are not human beings, they do not deserve to be memorialized or even treated humanely. These are the types who would raise no objection about rendering a deceased pet’s remains into a raw material.
Gates of Heaven is about this dichotomy. It explores the levels of which people love and care for their pets, in this world or the next, and those who think of them as garbage that needs to be processed somewhere. It is also about more than just the pets, but how people can turn these emotional connections into business enterprises, and whether they do so out of compassion or in order to line their own pockets.
The film begins with Floyd (or “Mac” as he goes by) talking about losing his Collie to an accident. Devastated, he wanted to find a piece of land to bury the remains of his loved one. When he found the land, he had a dream and eventually it led to the creation of a pet cemetery.
Mac is a man of compassion and his business interest is more about his love and respect for the deceased animals and the families who mourn them. He lambasts the rendering companies who have no respect for the deceased. There is another interviewee who talks about people being upset when a zoo animal’s remains went to rendering company. He admits that they lied and said that they buried them.
Mac realizes that there are more economic ways to maintain a pet cemetery, but he claims that his is “not a fast buck business.” He could have efficiently dumped a number of animals into the same burial plot and that would have likely brought him more profits, but it went against his moral code. Unfortunately, because he focused too little on the business aspect, he lost his shirt and his buried pets were forcefully evicted from the cemetery.
Mac when talking about the failings of his business and any culpability: “The only thing I’m guilty of is compassion. And that’s all.”
These pets were transferred to Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. Contrary to Mac’s endeavor, Bubbling Well is a successful pet cemetery because it is built upon solid business practices.
While the father and two suns that run Bubbling Well see it more as a business, does that mean it is exploitative? That is up to the viewer’s interpretation. There is one scene where a couple are putting to rest their loved dog Caesar. They are memorializing him with the patriarch of the business, Cal Harberts. He asks to see a picture of Caesar and compliments the dog for having such a gorgeous coat. He then talks about what great pets mixed breeds make. His tone is respectful and it comforts the mourning couple, but you have to wonder whether it is genuine. It could be superficial and a variation of what he says to every client, or he could have been playing to the cameras. Mac would share similar words, but we can imagine that he may emotionally empathize more with his clients.
Harberts leaves the operating of the business to his two kids, Phil and Dan. Dan dresses in 1970s, post-hippie fashion, and aspires to be a rock star. He admits that he partied during college, yet feels that he learned things and gives an odd explanation as to why, which shows that he basically did not learn. His brother Phil is his opposite. He has experience in the insurance industry and has good business sense. He compliments himself on his great memory and how it is necessary for the business that he uses it to keep up with all his veterinarian contacts. When he speaks, he is all either business or affirmation. He wants to even expand the business, and when talking about his father’s success, “he read the same textbooks as me.”
Phil is creative. He builds a “Garden of Honor,” which is a resting place for service dogs, whether they are police or seeing eye dogs, and they are buried for no price. Other owners can bury their pets in the same section, but at a higher price because of the prestigious land.
Bubbling Well still exists today. Here is a recent article the facility and its history.
Dan is neither Phil, Cal or Mac, and his appearance towards the end gives this documentary an extra quirk (although it has plenty, mostly from interviews of pet owners). He really is a slacker. We see him in his apartment listening to psychedelic music, presumably his own. He writes songs and longs to have them heard, but realizes that as time passes, that dream is fading.
The interviews with pet owners and snapshots of their interactions, like the memorable singing owner and dog, offer little to the narrative, but they are what gives the documentary its flavor. They recall the statement I began this write-up with, that people inexplicably love their pets. One lady says that she wants her pet buried because she believes they will be together again. In a sentiment that Mac would agree with, Mrs. Harberts says that the “at the Gates of Heaven, an all compassionate God is not going to say ‘Well, you’re walking in on two legs, you can go in. You’re walking in on four legs, we can’t take you.”
Film Rating: 7/10
Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, 1980, Les Blank
The bet was that Morris would not be able to complete Gates of Heaven or Werner Herzog would eat his shoe. This documentary is Herzog living up to his end of the bargain, with help from friends such as culinary goddess, Alice Waters, and of course the documentarian, Les Blank.
The documentary is in typical Les Blank style. It begins with upbeat music, photography that focuses on a weird object (Herzog’s walking shoe), and of course food.
After preparing the shoe Cajun style, and boiling it for 5 hours, he proclaims the shoe edible. Herzog says that he has survived Kentucky Fried Chicken so he can handle this. Does he eat the shoe? Sort of. They cleverly intercut the famous Chaplin shoe-eating scene from The Gold Rush. He does eat the shoe, but not the sole, comparing it to the bones of a chicken.
Back to the topic of this post. Herzog is proud of Morris for making the film. While eating the shoe is foolish, he is proud that it was a motivator.
Film Rating: 8/10
Herzog at Telluride: “You can make films with your guts alone.” This is a very short clip where he complements Gates of Heaven as a very fine film that was made with no money and only guts.
Errol Morris: October, 2014 interview.
Just like with The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris proves to be an excellent interview subject.
He tells a funny story about how Douglas Sirk, a director that he respected tremendously, walked out of his movie. “This isn’t a movie. This is a slideshow.” And then he said, “There’s a danger that this film could be perceived as ironic.” What?
Morris doesn’t remember Herzog saying he would eat his shoe, and minimized the influence of that “bet.” He claims he was more inspired by Herzog’s films.
Wim Wenders saw a very rough cut, one that they were worried wouldn’t fit into the projector. He said it was a masterpiece. That was the first positive review. It was very encouraging of course. Siskel and Ebert followed suit and loved it. They were known to fight with each other, but in the case of Morris’ film, they fought about how good it was. They reviewed it three times and put it on best of year list. “Thank you, Roger. Thank you, Gene.”
This is a two-film disc with Vernon, FL, which will be discussed next.
Posted on May 21, 2015, in Criterions, Film and tagged alice waters, bubbling well, criterion, errol morris, film, les blank, pet burial, pet cemetery, the criterion collection, werner herzog. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.
Where is Phil today? We were Air Force roommates in 1967/‘68.
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