Friday, February 11, 2011

Dealing with Death -- Reflections on "Gates of Heaven" (1978)

When it comes to animals, people can be very irrational and strange. To many pet owners, their animals are family members. They are named, spoken to, loved, and honored. In return, they love us unconditionally, curling up beside us on the couch when we're watching a movie, or licking our hands and faces like kisses during hard times. The death of an animal can often be just as hard to deal with as that of another person. For some, it's as though animals are people.

In 1978, documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, read about a legal situation involving a pet cemetery in Los Altos, California. The owner/operator of the cemetery, Floyd McClure, was required to dig up the 250 or so dead animals buried there. These animals were then relocated to Napa Valley and the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. Morris saw an opportunity to make a film, and from this he gave us the offbeat, beautiful reflection on life and death, Gates of Heaven.

At first glance, Gates of Heaven seems dull. There is no narration. The people involved, from Floyd McClure to the Harberts family -- owners of Bubbling Well -- are allowed to speak for themselves. As the story progresses, Morris cuts to interviews with pet owners who talk about their animals and their thoughts about the afterlife. They are sincere, thoughtful, everyday people. At times they are funny, like Florence Rasmussen, a little old lady who is trapped in her home and laments the loss of animals in the neighborhood -- everything she says she contradicts. Sometimes I wondered if Morris was making fun of them, especially Dan Harberts, the youngest of his family, who comes across as a philosophical slacker who dramatically takes to setting up his guitar amp atop the hill outside his small house and playing so all can hear.

Upon reflection, though, I think Errol Morris is reserving judgment. He wants us to think about our feelings about life and death and uses the conceit of the pet cemetery to force us to face our own fears of what lies in the next world. The early battle between Floyd McClure and the local rendering company is a struggle over how we as a society should respect the deceased. Does an animal deserve the same respect as a person? Do some people deserve more respect than others? Is the way we dispose of remains an indicator of how meaningful we perceive life and death to be?

Gates of Heaven is slight and subtle, but full of quirky humor. It's great fun listening to the owner of the rendering company talk about how people don't want him to talk about his job at parties and how he doesn't understand why they're all so squemish. Dan's older brother, Phillip, waxes philosophically about motivational speaking and his vision for the family business while he sits at a desk surrounded by an ostentatious display of plaques and trophies. The humor arises from people being people, and the feeling that maybe we've shared a similar thought or two from time to time, as ridiculous as it seems. Even if Errol Morris is having a little fun, it's obvious he fully respects these people, letting them speak for themselves, unedited. Even crazy Florence, who gets the film's longest monologue.

Death is among the most thought about facets of life, but one of the least discussed. Gates of Heaven, through its topic and use of humor, helps us to face such sobering reality with grace.