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USA 1978
Directed by
Errol Morris
85 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Gates Of Heaven

Errol Morris's debut documentary is in some ways more famous for Roger Ebert’s hyper-enthusiastic championing of it and Les Blanks’ wonderful short film, “Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe” (available here), in which the German filmmaker boiled and ate one of his shoes as he had promised to do should Morris ever make the film, than it is by virtue of itself. Certainly it is a droll depiction of the remarkable devotion of some pet owners to their animal friends, but a "masterpiece"? 

Gates Of Heaven takes as its subject the disinterment of 450 animals from the Foothill Memorial Gardens pet cemetery,  north of San Francisco, and their transfer to Bubbling Well Memorial Park in the nearby Napa Valley. Morris intersperses the move with talking head interviews with the pets’ owners and various people involved in the enterprise as well as a rival rendering factory.

Recalling Tony Richardson’s satirical mid-60s comedy The Loved  One, Morris’s film is a mixture of the laughable, the admirable and the dubious as only Americans seem capable of.  Although it is impossible not to see Morris as chuckling up his sleeve, contrary to his subsequent more tightly-honed films, he leaves the mix loose, sometimes even vague, allowing his subjects to ramble freely and the elements of the story at best, tangentially connected.  Although this is no doubt largely due to the no-budget nature if the film the outcome worked well for Ebert who saw in it all measure of things including to quote: “love, immortality, failure, and the dogged elusiveness of the American Dream”  (as did, unsurprisingly Herzog who is fascinated by the grotesqueries of American culture). Viewer interpretation, is of course, essential to all film but it's hard to to see many audiences getting this enthusiastic over what is a tad undercooked affair.




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