Death Walks on Four Legs…
To this day, Gates of Heaven holds a special place in cinematic lore.
It’s the film that launched the career of Errol Morris, the preeminent documentary filmmaker of our time.
The movie pioneered the art of non-fiction film, blurring the lines between objectivity, subjectivity and the truth.
Werner Herzog ate his own shoe because of it – look it up, there are tapes, courtesy of documentarian Les Blank.
At the most basic level, it’s that movie about pet cemeteries, the real ones, not that Stephen King horror/fantasy bullshit.
A majority of the frames are occupied by people talking directly to the camera, the trademark of Morris’s style.
What are they talking about?
Their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their achievements, their mistakes. Occasionally they’ll talk about pet cemeteries, most notably Floyd McClure, whose noble quest to provide a peaceful place for deceased animals has come to a quixotic end by the time the cameras start rolling, and Scottie Harberts, the rival cemetery matriarch whose words inspire the film’s title
According to the director, it’s not about pet cemeteries. Not really, at least. Which makes sense in a way. After all, there are no dead animals except a few offhand mentions that range from origin stories and myths of self-creation to philosophical and theological musings on the nature of life and death.
Perhaps this is the great conjuring act that Morris pulls with this film, the magic that causes it to endure to this day. By presenting a film that’s ostensibly about the death of beloved pets, Morris offers the truest picture of the human condition ever captured on film.
The people as subjects inevitably confront their own mortality in real time, in a way that direct questioning or even dramatic depiction could never achieve. This in turn causes the person watching the film to do the same, regardless of any preconceived opinions about the lengths to which others go to preserve and honor their pets’ memories.
In this sense, Gates of Heaven transcends both its own subject and the subjectivity of the viewer, arriving at the inevitability of death while asking all of us – whether we walk in on two legs or four – to consider what makes a meaningful life.