Monday, September 21, 2009

The Great Movies: "Gates of Heaven"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Gates of Heaven
Errol Morris, 1978

It's the second anniversary of the Great Movies project! And we've finally reached the first one that I've seen in the past.

Previous Contact: Although I didn't remember the title, once I saw the DVD cover I realized that I had seen this movie once before in the late 1990s. I remembered it, vaguely, as being spartan, quirky, sharp, and funny.


When you train a camera on someone who hasn't been schooled in acting or public speaking and let them speak their minds, they tend to make fools of themselves. Appearing on film is like playing basketball or performing music; anyone can do it, technically, but we are so used to watching professional performers that when we are asked to watch a novice, they tend to come off as ridiculous.

This is the problem with Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven, which is an early forerunner of the modern school of spare documentaries, the kind that do away with narration and gloss over the role of the interviewer. It treats, in theory, on an interesting enough topic: the motives that inspire people to create cemeteries for pets. In encouraging all parties concerned to bare their souls in front of the cameras, however, it turns into a glaring expose of the inner lives of people who could not possibly have realized the extent to which they were opening themselves to psychological voyeurism.

Not everyone feels this way. Roger Ebert has put Gates of Heaven on lists of the ten greatest movies of all time, stating that although he has watched the film dozens of times he doesn't feel like he has exhausted its intellectual depths. So, maybe I'm missing something. In addition to its treatment of the relationship between humans and their pets, Ebert seems to be drawn to the very aspect of the movie that bothers me, the extent to which the "characters" strip themselves bare for our viewing pleasure.

It seems unlikely that such a movie could be made now; when the cameras came out, most media-savvy modern Americans would either shut their mouths or hire an agent. To watch people humiliate themselves now, we rely on the make-believe worlds of so-called "reality television." Keeping peoples' lives at that artificial remove is perhaps more respectful of their real privacy than what Morris did in Gates of Heaven.

Plot: One group of guys starts an unsuccessful pet cemetery; a family up the road starts a successful one.

Visuals: Static cameras are pointed at people, generally as they sit in unflattering surroundings, and they talk.

Dialog: It can't be denied that the characters of the film say some pretty incredible things. Ebert singles out a long, rambling speech by a mildly deranged woman who lives across from one of the parks. She had nothing to do with the cemeteries and nothing to say about them, really. Her speech is mostly about her own life and struggles and is remarkable in the way that she continually loops back and contradicts what she said a moment before. It is so perfect that one suspects it had to be scripted, but no, apparently it's the real deal. That makes it respectably authentic, but also kinda exploitative.

Which won't stop me from giving you the opportunity to watch it right now!

 Prognosis: For the hard-core documentary buff only.


The Calico Cat said...

Kinda like Grey Gardens - you like it or you hate it...

IamSusie said...

My parents took me to a screening of this when I was a teenager in the 1980's. We LOVED it. Errol Morris's style was fresh at the time as was the examination of regular folks. I liked the way he framed people and just let them speak.

People are fascinating. I'm with Roger Ebert: Great Movie.

Aviatrix said...

I submit reality television as evidence against your theory that this could not be done today. It appears that if you point a camera at real people, they will talk. It's only the professionals who know enough to have you call their agent. I'm guilty of this myself. I've been on TV a lot. (It's a bit of a running joke in our family. I have been to some pretty remote places at the same time as a TV crew, completely by coincidence).

Michael5000 said...

@Aviatrix: We've submitted reality television as evidence of opposite claims. From my admittedly limited experience, there is nothing particularly real about reality television. Where the "characters" of Gates of Heaven look into the camera and, without any apparent reservations, bare their souls for all to see, people featured on reality television are very savvy about constructing a persona for the camera. Whether yakking about their sordid personal lives in front of a studio audience or competing in some strangely contrived game, reality TV guests are adroit at playing the part of A Person On TV, and so even if we learn that they have been cheating on their girlfriend with their own sister, or whatever, we never really learn anything substantial about their thoughts and feelings. In Gates of Heaven, these people are stripped bare.

boo said...

I did get a little queasy feeling that if I should laugh it would be at this woman's expense and unlike reality television, I couldn't easily forgive myself and blame my reactions on the editing. (I blame the nausea from spinning newspapers on that.)

Still, watching her this long after it has been made does offer a bit more of that artificial remove and I am able to see her as a kind of family archetype and laugh a bit at how, given an ear, some will gnaw it off.

However, it does make me appreciate how Michael Moore will insert his antics into his movies. I have found it annoying but I would rather see him as having an opinion about something rather than being nudged to one based solely upon a snippet. His being a bit guilty makes it bearable to see others portrayed as such too. With this woman, it is as if some finger of blame is pointed at her and I am forced to do the pointing.