After watching Gates of Heaven, I can understand why Errol Morris found the theater completely empty at the end of it’s first screening at the Berlin Film Festival. I’m also beginning to recognize the subtle thing that makes a filmmaker potentially great. It’s visible in this film. Roger Ebert saw it, and put this film on his top 10 list of best films of 1978. Here’s my stab at describing it: it’s not necessarily a filmmaker’s ability to record great on-screen action, exotic locations, or big budgets. It’s his ability or need to transcend the subject at hand and turn it into an exploration of deeper questions. In this case, it’s about success and failure, and life and death.
Synopsis: When a poorly run pet cemetery closes and 450 animals have to be dug up and moved to a more successful cemetery, first-time filmmaker Errol Morris introduces us to the failed owners and the successful owners in a series of interviews that raise questions about business, death, and the banality of existence.
Story Structure: In a fascinating preview of his later style, Morris structures the entire film around interviews in which the characters at times directly address the camera, but most often look close beside the camera in telling their stories. The film is roughly in two halves; the first half deals with the failed cemetery owners telling their story, and the second introduces us to the successful cemetery owners and their stories. The interviews slowly reveal character. Morris’ voice is not present, as it is in later films. The film gets really interesting toward the end as the Bubbling Springs cemetery owner talks about God and we realize that the religion he created for the pet owners convenience is really no different from the religions of the rest of the world.
Cinematography: The interviews are all different, but they are set up to say something about the person. For example, filming the oldest son with all of his trophies on the wall, or the dad with a name plaque on his desk, or the owners of the failed cemetery with an open can of Coors. Simple backgrounds work wonderfully – cactus behind pet owners, dry grass behind pet owners, and nothing else.
Intriguingly, the film is almost entirely interview, and it works (but that’s likely why most people walk out on it – it’s a bit tedious to sit through a feature that’s mostly interviews for many people). There is light by highly effective use of b-roll to illustrate the story: for example, there’s a couple of newspaper headlines illuminated by light falling just on the headlines, the rest of the page in shadow. There are shots of the cemetery location, and of workmen digging out the bodies of pets. There’s a shot of a guy drawing what he’s talking about on a pad of paper.
Editing: Morris is credited as the editor, producer and director of this film. I read somewhere that he consulted with a ton of editors who didn’t think they could make a film out of the footage, so perhaps he had no one except himself to edit it! One moment in the film feels really tacky, when Morris inserts a newspaper headline by doing the old-school spinning-spinning-spinning paper which suddenly stops and we see the headline. It was almost like, hey, I figured out how to do this technique so here it is. Kind of like I was doing on Final Cut yesterday.
Music and Sound: No music in the film except two memorable scenes in which the youngest son of the pet cemetery plays music he’s recorded on a tape recorder, and the second scene where he hooks up his guitar and blasts it out over the cemetery. There are a number of airplanes heard droning overhead while someone’s talking in an interview, car noises from busy streets during interviews, people talking a bit in background. But it manages to work.
As an interesting aside, this is the film that Werner Herzog famously ate his shoe over. Apparently, he had observed that Morris had an inability to complete projects that he started. Morris proved him wrong by completing this film. And a few others since then.