Monday, September 21, 2009
The Great Movies: "Gates of Heaven"
Gates of Heaven
Errol Morris, 1973
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 cemetaries 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 cemetary; 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 cemetaries 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.