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.
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.
GARLIC IS AS GOOD AS TEN MOTHERS, LES BLANK, 1980
In my opinion, the best filmmakers are the ones that continually challenge themselves. Too many get comfortable making a variation of the same film repeatedly, with diminishing results. While Les Blank’s early documentaries that centered on Louisiana and Texas were brilliant, he was wise to move along and venture into new territory. While the results were not always as good as his best early work, he had a way of picking fascinating and unusual topics.
He ventured north and west for his take on … you guessed it — garlic. He uses song to set the stage for this wacky documentary, with the lyrics “Garlic is the Spice of Life … Add Garlic in your Life.”
The subject is northern California, where there was a burgeoning garlic culture. He uses a similar format as his Louisiana films, most notably Always for Pleasure, to explore the culture, geography and finally the process of producing garlic.
My primary quibble here with Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers is that it focuses a little too much on the culture and less on the production, which unfortunately is reduced to a few minutes toward the end of the movie. Blank could have interspersed images of the production as he did so successfully with his earlier cultural and musical films. He has an eye for making something ordinary like food production look extraordinary. Instead, the culture dominated much of the early part of the feature. He shows people like the gentleman in the image above, people who think that garlic has spiritual or aphrodisiac powers. One guy even mutters that if you eat enough garlic, you’ll feel high. Some of the culture elements seem to be exaggerated to make them seem as grandiose as Mardi Gras culture in New Orleans, which of course is ridiculous.
He struck the appropriate balance with food. Les Blank just cannot fail at showing great food and making us hungry, even if it’s for the so-called ‘Stinking Rose.’ Some of the finest scenes were when people were preparing and cooking dishes with garlic. The scenes of Bastille Day at Chez Panisse restaurant are some of the best in the movie, where chef Alice Waters dedicates the day garlic-themed dishes. Near the end she makes a delectable version of chicken pot pie packed with vegetables and, of course, loads of garlic.
This was a good attempt for Les Blank to relocate his style on a fringe, niche culture. It was my least favorite of the set so far, but it had potential, and I can tell from a later film that it was useful as a stepping stone.
Film Rating: 5.5/10
For the Love of Garlic: – This was a 2014 re-visitation with the people involved, including Alice Waters and Maureen Gosling. They talk about how much Les Blank loved garlic. He would keep it in his pocket and shave it into his food. Waters reveals that after seeing the film later, she realized that she was not cooking the chicken dish correctly. Gosling talks about how they inserted the cultural content before the production deliberately, which I think was a mistake. Waters reveals that Les ran through a theater preview with sautéed garlic so it would have smell, which we know he also did with Always with Pleasure. Waters likes to do the same with her restaurant.
Remembering Les – This is a conversation with Alice Waters and Tom Luddy, who reflected on their decades long friendship with Blank. Luddy saw his brilliance in filmmaking with the first few films, while Waters saw how special he was at showing the cooking of food. Waters does most of the talking here and shares some interesting anecdotes, like one time where Les took her out onto the bayou on a boat and randomly jumped in the water.
SPROUT WINGS AND FLY, LES BLANK, 1983
The Blue Ridge area is special to me, as I’ve spent many a day up in those gorgeous and tranquil hills, escaping from the hustle and bustle from city life, if only for a moment. For that reason, I thought that my impression of Blank’s foray to the Carolinas would be colored by my bias, but the opposite turned out to be the case.
Tommy Jarrell is as country as they come. He was born in 1901 on the Carolina slope of the Blue Ridge. He lives near the small town of Toast, NC, which is not far from the larger (but still not very big) city of Mount Airy, NC. He is a fiddler, but not just any other fiddley. The old man can play with a vigor of a man 30-40 years younger, and his talents are continually on display in this documentary. He begins with the title song “Sprout Wings and Fly” and the film ends with him playing with impassioned fury at a southern musical festival.
Tommy is a character, as is to be expected from a Blank documentary. He is as southern as they come, with an accent so thick that at times his words are unintelligible. Subtitles are a must. He tells various stories, some jubilant and fun, others bleak and about loss, whether friends, relatives, or others. Some of the stories do not make as much sense as others, but listening to them being told is half the enjoyment.
Drinking is prominent in this feature. As one person says, they had good mountain water, so they made good whiskey, and that helped them make good music. They make their own whiskey and drink their fair share of it, although Tommy never does appear inebriated, although I expect he was much of the time.
Like most of the Les Blank films that preceded “Wings,” there is food, albeit not as much. Their meal consists of meat, chicken, potatoes, cornbread, basically standard southern fare.
While the subject is just as compelling as most in Blank’s films, I was left slightly disappointed. Perhaps it is because he showed so much ordinary scenery in the Louisiana and Texas films and made it look extraordinary. Conversely, the Blue Ridge scenery, which I know is stunning from my own adventures, is limited in appearance. He shows his share of flower, vegetation, and water streams, but there are not many mountain shots. Toast is in a valley, which may be why, but I feel that they should have captured the surrounding, majestic landscape that the people lived under.
The ending credits are a lot of fun. Someone asks Tommy “who is making the film?” and he points to Les, who he says is from California. He then points to Alice who he says “is at the head of this thing.” He is then asked if they got a grant. Yes, he responds, but he doesn’t ask where the government money comes from. As he is talking about it, they show the list of donors that made the picture possible.
Film Rating: 6.5
My Own Fiddle: My Visit With Tommy Jarrell, 1994 – This is a short documentary that was filmed at the same time as Sprout. It gives more background information on Tommy’s life, including many older pictures. He talks about his upbringing and his large family. Most is shot in the same style as the main feature, with music, flowers, and other nature shots. One of the better shots was one that shows a bee pollinating a flower. It ends with someone in a museum giving him a Stradivarius violin and asking him to play it. He manages a good tune, but says that it is not worth the price. Meanwhile, Blank juxtaposes European images from the museum with this distinctly southern music. Film Rating: 7.5/10
Julie: Old Time Tales of the Blue Ridge, 1991 – This is another short, companion feature, although the subject is Tommy’s sister Julie. Her brother’s music is the background as she talks about her life. She was born in 1902, married in 1921, and had 10 children. She sings acapella, mostly ballads and love songs. She talks about her life working in the tobacco factory, and much of the documentary is about her singing. She has a good voice for her age, and she is an interesting subject, but her story does not pack the same punch as Tommy’s. Film Rating: 5/10
An Elemental Approach – Cece Conway and Alice Jarrard were co-directors of this film. They loved Tommy Jarrell and the project was their idea. They raised money and convinced Blank to do it, but reluctantly. He took longer to edit the film. This seems apparent to me having seen it. While it is a good documentary, it does not have the characteristic Les Blank Passion. The ladies say they intentionally started the story with subjects of death, then water, and finally earth. They say that Tommy drank a lot and didn’t eat well, but worked hard, and that is why they thought he was so healthy at that age.
IN HEAVEN THERE IS NO BEER, LES BLANK, 1984
I mentioned above how Les Blank had successfully transplanted his Louisiana and Texas formula to other unique subjects. His documentary about polka is the finest example thus far, and rivals the best of his Louisiana documentaries. Unlike with garlic, which is more of a fringe counterculture, he finds a burgeoning, popular polka in northeastern Polish-Americans. Like with the Mardi Gras participants, the polka fans also drink, dance, and enjoy themselves. The film starts with the title song, “In Heaven There is No Beer,“ which follows with the lyrics “That’s why we drink it here. And when we’re all gone from here, our friends will be drinking all the beer.” Yes, they drink a lot of beer.
Why polka? Everyone interviewed for the film gave nearly the same response. They did it to unwind, to relax, and escape from the grind of their daily lives. Many were blue-collar, but there were also white-collar professionals, including doctors. On the polka dance floor they would truly let go. Some would go further than others. One shot shows an elderly man dancing alone on a beach in his underwear, while there is another couple that does an acrobatic dance where they kick their legs out in unison.
The film covers all facets of polka culture, including the various artists that had a following like Frank Yancovik (not related to Weird Al) and Little Wally, both of whom were polka recording artists. They cover multiple locations, including Buffalo, Connecticut, Milwaukee, and other places that have prominent Polish populations. Even if things vary somewhat from city to city, the vibe is the same. They loved the upbeat music, loved to dance, and loved to drink. Even if the drinking was minimized in the film’s message, there were lots of shots of people lining up at beer stands. Even if it was not on screen, and many times it was, beer was omnipresent in the film.
Much of the film focused on Polkabration, an annual festival on Ocean Beach in CT. Dick Pillar, a polka musician, started it at first as a weekend of performing and dancing. It grew up to a week, and then they started adding days because people would come early. They settled at 11 days, which was the longest that the band could feasibly play. People would come from all over the country to enjoy in the festivities, and it still exists today. A good portion of the polka dancing shots came from the beach festival.
In addition to just showing people enjoying themselves, they give the background and origins. Polka is an international genre. It is not necessarily German, Czech, Polish, French, but it is from all of these areas, and all have their own different versions of polkas. The Polish version has become popularized in America, and subsequently has achieved a large following overseas. European polka had been fading, mostly due to the political turmoil of the 20th century. The Polish had been occupied for 120 years and their culture subdued, but when away from the political constraints and expression is allowed, they were and are prideful and jubilant. Polka is one of the major expressions of this culture (and the easiest to highlight on film), but is one of many. Of course there is food like sausage or “keeshka”, Polish chicken, and other dishes that Les Blank is happy to give plenty of attention.
Like with Always with Pleasure, Les Blank truly captures and a distinct and small, but passionately and enthusiastically celebrated culture. Even though I am not a polka fan, as I am not a zydeco fan, through Blank’s representation, I found myself toe-tapping and understanding why people dedicate themselves so zealously.
Film Rating: 9/10
Polka Happiness – This is a 2014 interview with Chris Simon who worked with Blank. The idea for the film came entirely from Les, which I think shows compared with Sprout Wings and Fly. Simon took a class on polka and her instructor appeared in the movie, alongside many other interesting people that they would pull out of the crowd. One example was the older dancer, and to the opposite extreme was a young girl who wanted to carry a boom box blasting polka image. Now there’s an image for you.