"Gates of Heaven" is a curiosity, a documentary feature that actually suggests an updated, prosaic supplement to Evelyn Waugh's "The Loved One."
An iffy commercial proposition, "Gates" has been booked for five showings over the next three evenings at the American Film Institute Theater. The subject matter, which director Errol Morris elects to unfold in a curiously circuitous, shaggy-dog manner, is the pet cemetery business.
Inspired by an article in the San Francisco Chronicle five years ago, Morris interviewed a number of people who could bear witness to the failure of one undercapitalized facility in northern California, the Foothill Memorial Gardens in Los Altos, and the apparent prosperity of another, the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in the Napa Valley.
The newspaper story reported that 450 pets buried at Foothill Gardens were being exhumed and transferred to Bubbling Well, since the owners of the Los Altos property had decided to turn it into a housing tract. (Steven Spielberg's "Poltergeist" should cause that neighborhood especially anxious nights this summer.) The significant facts, personalities and implications, whether funny or poignant in nature, could probably have been covered in an incisive half-hour or so. "Gates of Heaven" seems to ramble around for almost an hour and a half in quest of transparent social and sentimental revelations.
For example, the first half of the movie is devoted to the sad story of Foothill Gardens, with the key testimony coming from Floyd McClure, the disappointed proprietor. A touching presence, McClure suggests a gentler version of Ed Asner. He had tried to realize his own prescription for success--"find a need and fill it"--by providing a service which he identified with a very specific sense of loss in childhood, a pet collie run over by a Model A. It's uncertain whether McClure somehow mismanaged the business, was betrayed by greedy partners or simply located his dream cemetery on the wrong spot.
The focus shifts entirely during the second half, which could be a self-contained featurette. The interview subjects may have revealing things to say about themselves, but it's difficult to respect the way Morris tends to present and organize these obliging comments and confessions.
In addition to leaving the business history of Foothill Gardens unacceptably fuzzy, Morris betrays a weakness for active forms of distortion. He withholds certain details for subsequent shock effect, notably the fact that McClure is confined to a wheelchair. He incorporates excessive interview material with witnesses remotely connected to the stories--for example, the sardonic operator of a Bay Area rendering plant and an excruciating, nattering old loony who merely lived within sight of Foothill Gardens--because their spiels seem gratuitiously entertaining. He's also fond of framing subjects in oddly sterile, foreshortened compositions, often with symbolic objects emphatically visible--a weeping willow, a livid hibiscus, a cactus garden, a portrait of a deceased pet poodle.
While the camera usually stares straight at the speakers, you don't feel that their confidences are being treated in a straightforward, respectable fashion.
On the contrary, they're getting a deliberately fish-eyed, condescending sort of scrutiny, calculated to earn the filmmaker an undeserved reputation for exposing the sad, banal and/or kitschy aspects of Middle America to patrons who already feel culturally superior and immune anyway.