Learning from films: Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven

There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?

On Netflix, you can now stream the classic 1978 Errol Morris film Gates of Heaven. I’ve seen a lot of Morris’ work, but somehow missed this one. Ostensibly, the film is a documentary about two pet cemetery businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area. But there are many layers going on here, and I have more questions than answers at this point. If you’re interested in people photography, Gates of Heaven is a must see. There were so many moments where I wanted to jump up and make a screen capture — the subjects, framing, and backgrounds are superb. And the stories — you couldn’t make this up. Morris has the complete trust of his interview subjects. But is Morris’ tongue located in his cheek, or is he sincere? Here’s a great review where Roger Ebert explores some of these issues. And a short clip from the film:

This was Errol Morris’ first film. Werner Herzog made a bet with Morris that if he could complete a feature film, Herzog would eat his shoe. Morris made Gates of Heaven, and Herzog fulfilled his promise by actually eating his shoe (cooked by Alice Waters). Below is a clip from the Les Blank film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.

I hope you enjoy Gates of Heaven, and look forward to hearing what you think. If you dig this film, you can also stream some other great Morris titles on Netflix including: Vernon, Florida, The Thin Blue Line, and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.

6 thoughts on “Learning from films: Gates of Heaven”

  1. Have to check it out. Haven’t seen this 1st Morris film.

    Whew – watched ALL of Inland Empire (Lynch) as a stream last night. Am I remembering right that you’re not a fan of Lynch? No, maybe it was Oliver Stone… I think it probably fits in w/ the Ruscha quote from Feb 8. I actually enjoyed the out of focus video and muddled lack of narrative.

    1. I don’t care for Oliver Stone, but I am a huge Lynch fan — ever since Blue Velvet. Inland Empire is difficult viewing, but quiet fascinating. Many of Lynch’s other films had many more constraints that seemed to provide a delicate balance of narrative amidst the bizarre. With DV cams the restraints are gone, and I don’t think it’s for the better. Mulholland Drive is a stand-out in really nailing this tricky balance. Last year I viewed all of Twin Peaks for the first time in 8-9 years, and really enjoyed seeing it again.

  2. While wending my way through Inland Empire, I was wondering at times why I was doing this. But by the end, I decided I had rather enjoyed the journey through DL’s mind and fantasy world. I too recently went through all the Twin Peaks episodes, having only seen two of them when they were originally on the air. By the end, I was laughing at the antics more than being creeped out. Poor Cooper. But I almost thought I saw Bob somewhere in Inland Empire.

  3. It’s great to finally see this film. Some amazing compositions, but I’ll have to admit that by the end I was a bit tired of the locked down camera setups. It’s a style I can relate to, but it does tend to induce a certain degree of mind jello.

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