I am a bit of an Errol Morris fan. And I’d love to love this film. Unfortunately, not so much. In the world of documentary film directors, Errol Morris, is, you know, kind of a big deal. His interview style – shallow depth of field, stream of consciousness, direct eyeline with the camera is a style other filmmakers emulate and study. (why am I telling you about it, when you can watch an interview about it here.) Many a bad interview I have seen and thought “Where is Errol Morris when you need him?”
“Gates of Heaven” is a story about two pet cemeteries. One is a failure. One is a success. Morris interviews the kooky and occasionally delusional nutjobs that have chosen this profession as well as those poor mourning souls who chose to shell out cash to get their dead pets a permanent view. The film is really entirely interviews. No narration, no soundtrack, no particular story arc. It’s a series of interview selects juxtaposed against one another. On one side – the heart-warming failure who wanted so badly to honor dead collies that he failed to run a successful business – on the other a cold-hearted businessman who “reprocesses” dead animals into “usable products.”
In later films, this juxtaposing of people telling the same story from personally distinct viewpoints is a sophisticated story telling device creating narrative tension. (You should watch The Thin Blue Line, really, you should) Here it becomes kind of a narrative slop.
“Gates of Heaven” was Errol Morris’ first feature length documentary shot in the late 1970’s. And to be frank, it shows. Not just in the long sideburns, sunglasses as thick as bread, and pant-waists at the ribs. But also in the long rambly interview bites that are part of a young filmmaker just finding his style. Interview “bites” is the wrong word. It’s shot on film – a film roll is about 11 minutes long. Many of these people yammer on for about 10 minutes – or the length of time it would take for Morris to finish asking a question and the person to start talking. We’re really seeing whole independent monologues. While Errol Morris is famous for that style of interview that does encourage a subject to yammer on – this first film is overindulgent while he experiments with it. At least these interviews are well-conceived and aesthetically fascinating. There is plenty to look at in the background while you zone out in boredom from what these poor folks are actually saying.
As a student of documentary film, I think this was a valuable film to watch. This interview style was clearly conceived and executed – and the opportunity to watch Morris first work was fascinating. As a person recommending films to others, I’d have to say, skip it. If you want to see Errol Morris’ mature work and actually enjoy it, try watching The Thin Blue Line or The Fog of War. If you enjoy conceptual art – where the thinking of the method is more important than the result, watch this one.
2.5 of 5 cheers