Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Gates of Heaven


I’ve been hearing about this one for a long time, and was finally inspired to rent it after seeing Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Errol Morris is a great documentarian. In The Thin Blue Line he actually made a difference, getting a man wrongly convicted of murder freed from prison and exposing the real killer. In Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control he profiles four men obsessed with completely different things, and makes it work. In The Fog of War he shows Robert McNamara as a man eaten up with guilt over his mistakes in running the war in Vietnam.
But I’m afraid that this, his first film, an examination of pet cemeteries and the people who run them, left me cold. I found the people boring. I mean, you can set your camera up and let it run and even the blandest man will eventually say something that is worth consideration, and will reveal himself in ways he didn’t intend, but I found these interviews (though Morris never says a word nor is heard to ask a question) a little too naked, a little too … well, I’m not sure what the right word is, but it’s sort of “let’s gawk at this poor pathetic guy.” I didn’t feel there was a sympathetic outlook on the part of the filmmaker. At one point he lets an old woman ramble about her ungrateful son, and you either have to laugh at her, or cringe. I cringed.
The guy I liked the best in the movie was the man who ran the rendering plant. He gets a kick out of how weirdly some people see his profession, which, after all, is simply returning to nature those beings who came from nature. Burial has always struck me as a terrible waste, and a monumental (so to speak) act of egotism. What is this obsession with cadavers, human or pet? I remember when they were building the MAX train tunnel in Portland. It was going to run beneath a cemetery. Deep beneath, but a lot of people were up in arms. The rumble of the trains is going to disturb the sleep of my dear old dad. He’s not sleeping, he’s dead, you idiot! If it mattered to me at all (which it doesn’t) I’d like my corpse to go to the rendering plant after any useful pieces had been harvested. But who expects rationality? Ask Khufu, aka Cheops. His ka is sleeping out there in the desert outside Cairo, under the most massive monument to egotism ever built.