Gates of Heaven had promise. But either through false advertising or bad salesmanship, it never lived up to that promise.
Here's what it says on the DVD packet:
"When financial hardship forces California's Foothill Pet Cemetery to close it's pearly gates, its dearly departed loved ones are relocated to the nearby Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. During this tense transition, filmmaker [Errol] Morris meets a collection of eccentric cemetery operators and anguished animal lovers and elicits a meditation on love and loneliness..."But that's not quite the movie we saw. Indeed, it starts off rather well, with Floyd "Mac" McClure telling the story of how Foothill Pet Cemetery came to be, and how through bad business dealings, it came to fold. Because of the investors' greed, the partnership was dissolved and all the pets interred at Foothill had to be moved.
Cut to Bubbling Well. It's not necessarily clear that ALL of the pets from Foothill were transferred to Bubbling Well, but that doesn't appear to have been the point. Had we followed the transport of the pets, seen them to their final final destination, heard more from the grieving owners, it may have held my attention. Instead, we meet the Harberts', the family who run Bubbling Well, and it seemed to become another documentary altogether.
We're introduced to Cal Harberts and his wife, and they seem like genuine, caring people, much like Mac. But when we meet the sons, Phil and Dan, we're treated to long-winded ramblings from Phil about his recent life in the insurance industry, his motivational speeches, his philosophies on life and yadda yadda yadda. Dan appears to speak more about the pet cemetery business, but also tends to go off about his music quite a bit. At one stage we're treated to a solo performance which, while beautifully shot, didn't do much to further the story of the pets from Foothill.
In my opinion, it was over-long and poorly edited; Roger Ebert thinks it's the greatest documentary ever made, so who am I to argue?
Was it me? Was it us? Do we just not get this kind of slow-paced, repetitive storytelling? I spent a great deal of time while watching this movie wondering exactly what Morris was trying to do. I considered the style, the slack pace, the telling and retelling of the same kinds of stories by the interviewees and I managed to come up with something akin to studied portraiture. You never tire looking at Dorothea Lange's work, for instance, of families during the Depression. Perhaps, I thought, Errol Morris wanted us to view the Harberts, say, in a similar fashion. The more we look at them, in the same spaces, saying basically the same things, the more fascinating they become? Same with the old folks in Vernon, Fla -- we trace the lines on the men's faces by the end of that film, and they are compelling people. But a snapshot is all Morris gives us -- the same people in the same spots rehashing the same stories.
The same happens here, or at least winds up happening after 25 minutes of a genuinely interesting story of the Foothills Pet Cemetery. I found myself far more interested in what happened to Mac, founder of Foothills, when the place went under, than Phillip Harberts style of parenting.
I understand Morris has a style, an approach perhaps unconventional, but I was nonetheless left out here. Maybe the film is not so much like a Lange photo at all. I look at "Migrant Mother" and the stories form in my head. The background is there -- the era, the kids -- but the full picture reveals itself only through my imagination, and Lange's darkness and light. If the woman in that photo sat and rabbited on about about the same watering hole or dirt pile for 85 minutes, she'd lose her fascination, wouldn't she?