FILM REVIEW: The Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven DVD
Gates of Heaven DVD

Film: The Gates of Heaven
Filmmaker: Errol Morris
Year: 1978
Doc and a Drink review by:
Katy Jones

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



3 Replies to “FILM REVIEW: The Gates of Heaven”

  1. This was actually the first Errol Morris film I ever saw. Which may be why I enjoyed it so much more than you did. It’s been many years now since I saw it, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the elderly couple or the factory guy. My threshold for slow and boring tends to be a bit higher than many, but I liked the extra rambling length of the bites. They extend beyond the point of boredom and become interesting all over again. While Morris’ later work becomes much easier to digest, I appreciate the honesty of this less polished piece.

    Let me know if you watch Vernon Florida, I never did get to see that one. My personal fave of his is probably still Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.


  2. Comment By: Becky B.
    Re: Gates of Heaven

    Katy – I think you are being too nice.

    My gut reaction was immediate – extreme boredom. Which was then followed by my actual reaction – a happy nap. I would rather take a nap then sit through this entire doc….. I slept from 38 minutes in to about 1hr and 9 minutes. And I missed nothing – no plot points – or unexplained characters.

    I was lulled into my sleepy state by the expected lack of camera work and rambling interviews. It didn’t help that the documentary had barely a whisper of natural sound let alone any remnants of a soundtrack.

    It is possible that my reaction is simply due to the film being completed in 1978 instead of during MTV generation years – but not probable. I consider myself a lover of all types of doc styles.

    But – Mr. Morris – you still could have added B Roll over talking heads and a little music. Gates of Heaven truly deserved a couple rock ballads -for sure!

    My suggestion to possible viewers – watch a preview online and pretend you rented it for “film school purposes”.

    love ya all,

    1 of 5 Cheers


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