This entry is part of Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.
All in the same year (and in the same blog series) we go from the “Days of Heaven” to the “Gates of Heaven“. And despite coming from different genres, the two films share more similarities than just their titles. They both rely on their filmmakers to wait for and trust their cameras to capture the truth, and the story to emerge from these skeins of vision and emotion.
It’s hard to appreciate Gates of Heaven for what it is without having to forget and ignore the 30+ years of audio-visual tropes and language that have developed in its wake, thanks partly to its influence. It’s a very straightforward piece, both as a documentary and a piece of visual art, which makes it very easy to miss out on the profundities and complex themes that emerge subtly as it unspools. But is it true subtlety or merely naiveté? Prior to Gates, Errol Morris had never made a film, and it’s kind of obvious. The film can be almost too earnest and understated at certain parts that you can’t help but wonder if he had any idea what he was doing.
Then you come upon some scenes and shots that seem as artfully and fussily composed as anything you’d see in something by Wes Anderson. Singular faces way more distinctive than central casting could ever dream, ardently share soundbite-rich rants and personal anecdotes worthy of Mamet, across a succession of backdrops ranging from the lurid to the idyllic. It’s like Morris’ camera kept being blessed with all these strikingly quirky aesthetic accidents. But when do the accidents end, and the artistry or artifice begin?
Unlike most documentaries that have grabbed attention through the years, Gates of Heaven features no dramatic confrontations, no grand vistas, not even a stentorian narrator. Just a series of simple interviews and anecdotes tied together by a concept that would have seemed more appropriate for a Stephen King horror movie (you know which one I mean).
The irony is that this low-key memento mori has achieved cinematic immortality. Morris shows that there can be more philosophical depth in simple human interaction than in the grandest conflicts. But then, this is a work of art, and a work of truth, that does so much with so little. All Morris seems to do is to keep asking questions and listening. The camerawork and editing seem to force no agenda. The slight narrative seems unforced and unembellished. The people & places are real enough, and so are the sentiments they evoke. Or are they? There are questions inside of answers to questions in this delicately morbid ouroboros of ideas. Maybe in the end it’s mostly a matter of faith?
Just by literally pointing a camera at such a benign, inoffensive topic, Morris manages to craft a film that transcends its subject matter, eliciting reflective insights purely from keen observation. Yes, at its core Gates of Heaven is a documentary about pet cemeteries. But it’s also a devastating treatise on life and death, idealism and capitalism, inadvertently documenting the clashing transition between the dusk of the sensitive hippies of the flower child era and the dawn of the wheeling-dealing ‘greed is good’ generation.
I’d recently lost a beloved pet myself, and was drawn to the film as I grieved. I have to admit that this may have made me empathize more with the people in the film. It prompted me to question my own reasons for being so attached to an animal, how I personally dealt with grief and death, and left me pondering my own mortality. Leaving me with more questions… What is the nature and worth of love if we can give it away so freely? Is lavishing affection on our pets a reflection of the human need to be needed? Why have we humans always memorialized death? Why all this uncertainty? When will the questions stop? How does it all end? Maybe, in the end, it is mostly a matter of faith.