Thursday, August 21, 2014
Gates of Heaven
The road to Errol Morris’s first feature would probably make a book in itself, never mind a couple of introductory paragraphs to a review; let’s just say that after studying immersing himself, but not continuing a career path, in musicianship and scholarship, Morris found his calling as a documentarian. An unfinished project on Ed Gein brought him into contact with Werner Herzog – of the Morris/Herzog connection, there will be more to say in tomorrow’s review – after which Morris considered turning the material he’d amassed into a manuscript. This potential career as a writer also stalled and instead he started work on a second documentary feature, about the so-called “Nub City” (i.e. Vernon, Florida), thus named because residents were committing acts of self-amputation in pursuit of insurance money. Morris received death threats and the “Nub City” documentary went the way of the Ed Gein documentary, although a very different film about Vernon would become Morris’s second film.
During the turmoil surrounding the “Nub City” project, Morris read of the exhumation of 450 corpses from a pet cemetery that had gone bankrupt. Intrigued, he set off to find out more. The result was ‘Gates of Heaven’. The film – devoid of narration and mostly shot in a “talking heads” style – recounts the efforts of nobly-minded Floyd McClure (Mac to his friends) to establish a pet cemetery and sensitively cater to bereaved pet owners. Mac recruits a few associates and they attempt to establish a viable business in a town where most dead animals end up at a rendering plant. Where they fail (Mac and his partners are estimated to have lost about $30,000 each – this in 1978!), local businessman John Harberts succeeds, and the second half of ‘Gates of Heaven’ shifts the focus to Harberts and his two sons, who run the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park on an admixture of hard-headed business acumen and barf-inducing sentimentality.
McClure, sincere and diffident, was never going to make a go of it. His rueful account of the affair is juxtaposed with the pragmatic worldview of the manager of the rendering plant, and the contrast speaks for itself. When Harberts and his horribly self-obsessed clan come into the picture, your heart breaks for McClure: his down-home good-heartedness is just so much chaff cast aside by the threshing machine of their money-fixated mindset.
Harbert Snr is a patriarch of the dollar-bottom-line school, but for all that he presents as a man who knows how to run a business and run it successfully. His sons, however, are quite something else.
The elder son blathers on about his time in the insurance business (it’s implied that he burned out and came back home to consider other options) and how he’s now learning the pet cemetery business and how he hopes to develop the business and if there’s even the most spurious opportunity to ram the word “business” into a sentence then goldarn it he’d make that his business. He’s given over to saying things like, “What does this mean for me? What does this opportunity mean for me? Well, it means a lot.” And the more he talks, embellishing his sentences with corporate buzzwords (yeah, they had corporate buzzwords back in the 70s: plus ça fucking change), the more his speech is drained of coherence and meaning until words just burble out of his mouth like so much white noise as he grins caprophagously from behind his trinket-lined desk.
The younger son, who perhaps engages a little more with the day-to-day operation of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, gives a less self-congratulatory account of himself but emerges as socially awkward and desperately lonely. He lives near the cemetery, in a house on the hillside (“the house on the hill, we call it,” he says without a shred of irony, winning himself 1978’s Statement of the Obvious Award). He rhapsodizes about his stereo system: “it’s a Pioneer SX1010,” he breathes huskily, in much the same tone Petrarch must have adopted when speaking of Laura. He makes tapes of his choppy and derivative electric guitar compositions. A key image has a single loudspeaker overlooking an empty valley while Harbert Jnr, offscreen, plays bad rock guitar to no-one.
By this point, ‘Gates of Heaven’ reveals itself as a film about the hollowness of the American dream and the individual’s isolation from society, a sort of ‘Great Gatsby’ with deceased pets.