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Errol Morris' "The Gates of Heaven"


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#1 Tim J Durham

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Posted 30 December 2005 - 10:08 AM

The Gates of Heaven

Why would somebody ever think to make this film? Roger Ebert called it one of the 10 best films ever made but really, what did Morris see in this that no other would? To decide to document the Quixotic attempt by one Floyd McClure to buy (more on that later) a small piece of land only to provide man's best friend the respect of a decent final reward? A Pet Cemetery.

The idea came to Floyd one summer day when, as a school kid, he was taken on a field trip to the local rendering plant. Having no idea what a rendering plant was and knowing only that it smelled really foul, he found himself "sitting on the floors of Hell right now." And so it began. Eternal enemies and a life's mission for Floyd.

The film opens with a most typically strange Morris shot: a giant, spreading tree in the backyard of an unknown house with a man in a wheel chair seemingly being swallowed whole at the base of it. Then he cuts inside the house and we meet Floyd seated in a chair in the middle of his living room and he lays out his story and Morris let's him tell it straight.

As he tells it, it quickly becomes apparent that no matter how great an idea this was or could have been, somehow the wheels of capitalism are not gonna be a mesh with Floyd. He's just too sweet and näive and you sense that he is somehow, you don't yet know how, to be crushed by them. Through shear determination, he gets his pet cemetery off the ground (so to speak) and we discover what Floyd knew all along: People want this and they didn't even know they wanted it until Floyd built it. This fact does not surprise Floyd.

Morris interviews the financial backers and clients and even the owner of the rendering plant (the competition) and each is stuck in the same 1970's time warp from which you can't- having looked at them- then imagine any one of them as people of this modern age. But they DO love their pets, even the rendering plant guy, and we want and expect him to be a villain but he just won't have it. His nature was just too easy and friendly and he never belittled Floyd. He wanted people to know that rendering was a needed service, not the atrocity of Floyd's imagination.

Anyway, as expected, it all starts to come apart for Floyd as the owner of the land (apparently Floyd never did nail down the contract) gets some big ideas about importing dead animals from South America and stacking numerous animals into the same graves and Floyd's dream unravels and listening to him and his backers and clients tell it is almost Shakespearean. The middle third of the film deals with having to dig up all those buried pets and relocate them to another pet cemetery in the Napa Valley of all places- Bubbling Well.

Watching this take place across the street is one Florence Rasmussen and with the camera trained on her she launches into what may be the funniest, most tragic rant I've ever seen. She's a woman who would never have dreamed that someone from "The Movies" could be interested in "settin' a spell" with her but she seizes the screen and uses it to excoriate her shiftless and unseen son (among other things). Her story has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the film and keeping her in the picture would not have dawned on another film-maker but Morris' including her - as the key turning point- is what lifts this story out of the realm of mere oddity and into a place that no one else would have thought to go. And that's just the first half.

It was Morris' first film and what a first impression for a great career.

Edited by TimJBD, 30 December 2005 - 10:09 AM.

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