It’s not often that I wish for amnesia, but last week I sat in my chair and dreamed of getting smacked with a tire iron, or hit by a car grille or zapped by a buzzing transformer. I wanted an injury to wipe my brain, so that I might experience afresh the horrified joy that I first felt on hitting the halfway point of Errol Morris’ documentary Gates of Heaven, when the old lady being interviewed on the subject of pet cemeteries (ostensibly the movie’s subject) begins to unreel a tale of personal hardship, declaiming on her prodigal grandson (“He’s gone back to his old job now… hauling sand! No, he’s not hauling sand, he’s in the office now”) and his ex-wife (“She was nothing but a tramp in the first place. I told him that. He wouldn't listen to me”). She even ruminates on revenge a bit (“Now he's got the office job, I'm going after him. I'm going after him good, too - if I have to go in... in a different way. He's going to pay that money. He's got the office job now”).
Morris’ secret is to let people talk themselves into exhaustion until they accidentally let the truth slip. Instead of pet cemeteries we get the ramblings of a woman ending her life in a cloud of regrets, loose ends and thwarted devotion. Like so many of Morris’ subjects, she has the haunted air of someone who knows she has been cheated but cannot identify the cheater. Which is in part what Gates of Heaven is about: the gulf between success and failure, the people who sail up on clouds of resentment and the ones who live at the bottom, drowning in the indulgent contempt of those who’ve hoisted themselves to the top. But it’s also about the permeable boundaries of human compassion and the mysteries of death and eternal life. Not to mention the importance of getting your pet neutered. You'll even find out where circus animals go when they die.
I should explain. Who’s actually seen this film? Not too many people, that’s who. This post may only be for people interested in films that no one’s seen, films that you can’t just go and rent at Bluckboster Vedio, films that will bore you if you’re tired or in the mood for a Brice Wullis shoot-a-lot. Films that appear to require effort, which these days is the exact opposite of what films ask of you. Which is to make no effort at all. One day they’re going to perfect a system in which mechanical arms hold open your mouth and throw in popcorn kernels soaked in Branded Butter Experience, and when that day comes, Gates of Heaven will not be on the marquee.
But it should be.
In 1978, Erroll Morris read an article in the San Fransisco Examiner about a pet cemetery scheduled for exhumation and relocation to the nearby Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in the Napa Valley. So, armed with a cinematographer and a sense of curiosity, he interviewed Floyd McClure, the owner of the failed pet cemetery. Goitered, bald and wheelchair-bound, McClure talks about the joy of pets, the difficulty of running a pet cemetery and the traumatic effects of growing up next to a rendering plant. In a move that borders on the mean-spirited, Morris intercuts Floyd’s sorrow-choked memories of the rendering plants with a rendering plant manager who is baffled about the revulsion people feel towards his work.
From there he goes to the Bubbbling Well to interview the owners, who are possibly the most cringe-inducing family ever committed to film. Patriarch Calvin Harberts drawls on about the significance of the birth control pill to the boom in the pet burial business in a way that makes you want to scrub yourself raw – he uses the word “fondle” way too often, and his practiced cadences reveal an ageing blowhard who’s never been told to shut up. His funeral services reek of an awkward insincerity (although that may be the result of the camera’s presence).
Weirder by far are the interviews with his eldest son Phil, a former insurance salesman who suffered a nervous breakdown and now mows lawns and drives a van for his father’s business. A good-looking shell of a human being, he recites sales techniques and motivational philosophy in lieu of actual speech. He seems relaxed adn pleased with himself until he mentions that that even the simplest of tasks fills him with fear. At one point Morris films him behind a desk surrounded by trophies as Phil describes his attempts at working business-style motivational techniques into every aspect of his life.
Throughout, Morris throws in interviews with pet owners who have lost their pets and cannot reconcile themselves to the notion that their animals are gone forever. One of them earnestly lays it out: “There’s your dog. Your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?” Sheila Harberts offers the following by way of a balm – “Surely 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’”. There's something of a cargo cult mentality at work: maybe, if we treat these animals like people, even giving them the full burial rites, we'll have granted them a place in paradise.
It’s a strange quandary for people who are nominally Christian but have found themselves loving an animal far more than they could love another human being. Faced with the irreconcilable difference between the finite world and the infinite imagination, they place their bets on the infinite. As Floyd MacClure says, “Like I said before – death is for the living and not the dead”.