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GATES OF HEAVEN (director/writer/producer: Errol Morris; cinematographer: Ned Burgess; editor: Charles Laurence Silver; music: Dan Harberts; cast: Floyd McClure, Joe Allen, Martin Hall, Harberts’s family (Cal, Dan,Phil, and Scottie); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; Columbia Pictures; 1978)
A bizarrely entertaining eye-opening look at pet cemeteries.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Errol Morris’s (“The Thin Blue Line”) first documentary feature is a bizarrely entertaining eye-opening look at pet cemeteries, that somehow skirts around going for the cheap laughs it could have easily gotten. It’s a real treat for those who love dogs yet can see how absurd some pet owners can become and how mercenary and exploitative are some California pet cemeteries. In a straight-forward manner Morris tackles the absurd lengths certain pet owners will go to take care of their dogs in the afterlife. The conventional talking-head interviews with the parties concerned unforeseeable moves into strangely surreal territory as the film progresses and it becomes a peculiar study of life, as it starts out being about cemeteries but evidently becomes much more than that.

Errol Morris after reading a newspaper article about a pet cemetery moving, decided to make a film about it. It revolves around the Foothill Memorial Gardens pet cemetery, located north of San Francisco, which closed and its land was sold for a housing project. The 450 animals buried there were moved to Bubbling Well Memorial Park in nearby Napa Valley sometime in the 1970s. Morris used this relocation as an opportunity to explore the psyches of pet owners who are so devoted that they see nothing wrong with giving their animals all the burial rites human beings have. Morris simply had his subjects comfortably seated and talking unscripted in natural gushing terms about their pets, while the camera would intercut with shots of the two cemeteries and the move. The subjects easily rambled on about their pets, their own afterlife theories and whatever else popped into their heads. However ridiculous these people might seem, they still come across as sincere and completely devoted to animals who had become an important part of their life as companions.

One of the interviewees in the film’s first half is the guileless paraplegic Floyd McClure, the honest proprietor of Foothill Memorial Gardens and devoted animal lover who because of his lack of business skills watched his business go bust and had to sell. In his own rambling style he rails against a local rendering plant and how it is devoid of spiritualism and of caring about the animals it disposes. In contrast to McClure’s pure aims are the new owners we meet in the film’s second half, the Harberts family, who are not villains but show no real concerns about the animals and went into this as strictly a money-making business venture. Also, interviewed are a number of Harberts’ more eccentric customers.

There is lot to learn through Morris’s film about people and their motives for owning pets or being in the pet business. Morris crosses uncharted territory and this unique film is so puzzling that it’s worth a look just to see what you might think it’s really getting at.REVIEWED ON 2/17/2004 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”