Friday, August 23, 2013

Gates of Heaven (1978)

USA, 85 minutes, documentary
Director/editor: Errol Morris
Photography: Ned Burgess

I had better note how strange it was to sit down to watch and write about Gates of Heaven, a documentary about pet cemeteries, within days of the death of a long-time pet cat. As I feared, the context tended to confirm my impression of the worst qualities of filmmaker Errol Morris, even here in my favorite film by him, his first. He can often come across as a shallow ironist, falling back continually on an unpleasant mocking element that curdles the best here. In many ways we are in David Byrne territory (before even David Byrne had arrived there), with an insulated and smug complacency that too often misses and obtrudes the point.

The themes Morris attempts to smother in jocularity often entirely resist that—themes of faith, love, responsibility, some of the most profound questions we ask. The result is hardly unflawed, a movie that appears to be having an argument with itself about something we don't understand, like a feuding couple at a dinner party. Yet, in terms of form and in terms of filmmaking strategy, it brought things to bear that we are still seeing released every month in new documentaries.

To me, the parallel is The Passion of Joan of Arc. Both take basic syntactical elements of their forms—the close-up in The Passion, the documentary every-man interview in Gates—and abstract (and/or abuse) them into something greater and certainly other than they had been, altering the course of cinema, no less. Morris has much to answer for in documentaries since, but he opened doors wide with this. Even as it raises the power of the talking head shot to new levels by example and by implication, it also brings along an acute awareness of the self-consciousness that a camera inevitably intrudes in documentary interview situations, which points down the road to Ross McElwee and a new, personalized style.

Gates of Heaven doesn't know much of what to do with either of these fundamental elements, except to look at them, but that's all it had to do. Morris has elected a subject area he seemed to feel was slight by definition, the better to explore the nuances of the every-man interview. His next effort, Vernon, Florida, would abstract even further by focusing on marginalized, semi-coherent cranks around a small town that he could cajole into talking to the camera. (There's a taste of Vernon, Florida here in the interview with the old woman in a pink smock sitting in a doorway.)

What remains interesting to me is the collision between this early-pomo exercise in ironic affectation, on the one hand, and the homeliest of vital experiences in human affairs on the other: namely, deaths of loved ones, pet division. As with Bresson in Au hazard Balthazar (and/or as with my projections onto either or both), this is material that simply does not yield control easily, an area freighted with wide ranges of perception at primal levels.

It should be noted that, even across its relatively brief course, Gates of Heaven attempts to be many different kinds of documentary: there are investigative pieces about a California scandal related to a real estate deal gone bad, various interview studies reminiscent of Sinclair Lewis and a certain style of middle American businessmen culture, freak shows of pet owners, and any number of intriguing oddballs and happenstance event caught on film. It plays like a first film in many ways—raw, disjointed, in love beyond reason with certain of its own passages. That's the expectation to bring to it, I think.

I like it best when the material overwhelms Morris—he was on the right track with a pet cemetery idea, and he definitely had the right idea to make it as still and focused on the interviews as possible. The dignity of grief belittles its mockery, and the few glimpses Morris allows us of that dignity forces a flood of gravitas willy-nilly. He is otherwise so busy evading the profound questions he is implicitly raising—of life and death and love—that they are forced all the more on the viewer. What is appropriate to an animal's death? Why do we feel so deeply for them? What does it mean to place a corpse in the ground and mark it with a stone? Is it foolish and silly (and unsustainable)? Or is it one of the most profound things we do? Why do I want to laugh here? Why do I want to cry?

Gates of Heaven raises all of these questions and more, and then looks for answers to people it patently appears to think are inconsequential. Most of the people populating this film are obviously motivated by vanity or greed or both. They often contradict and undermine the points they are trying to make. The pet owners are petty and eccentric. But some of these characters manage to fight back too. Dan Harberts, a young man in his 20s in 1978, a college graduate, the son of the owner of the pet cemetery Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, is one such. He is humble, full of common sense and perspective, and his guitar playing is perhaps the most memorable image people take away here.

Along the way Gates of Heaven opened up an avenue, a stance, whose emphasis was new in documentaries. Where Frederick Wiseman had used the increasingly portable, utilitarian technology to purify verite, Morris was leading the charge of an intruding, personalizing element, working explicitly with the power of the camera and the power of the talking head, a live wire of connection between image and viewer and a way to instantly evoke the tensions of real human interaction as never before quite so intentionally.

Top 10 of 1978
Appears the movies or I had heaven on our minds in 1978. Perhaps so, or maybe it was just a reasonably weak year, low point of the decade? Straight Time I only saw for the first time recently, then two genre classics. I really do not like the Vietnam sequences in The Deer Hunter, but the stateside stuff is so good. Inordinately fond of the Altman. And warming all the time to The Last Waltz, which still seems to me a little too Rolling Stone magazine establishment. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The stuff I didn't like so much was not bad so much as underwhelming in most cases. I do think Dawn of the Dead is overrated, which I know is sacrilege, but to me it plays more like a jokey action picture.
1. Gates of Heaven
2. Heaven Can Wait
3. Days of Heaven
4. Straight Time
5. Superman
6. Halloween
7. The Deer Hunter
8. A Wedding
9. Drunken Master
10. The Last Waltz

Didn't like so much: Animal House, Autumn Sonata, Dawn of the Dead, Interiors, The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Gaps: Blue Collar, Le chambre verte, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Perceval le Gallois, Pretty Baby

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