Floyd McClure had an idea when he was a young man and his beloved pet collie was run over by a car and died in his arms. He didn't want his dog to be turned into glue, so he buried it, setting up a pet cemetery and soon his idea took off and his compassion for animals became a lucrative business. This film examines those animal owners who want their pets to be commemorated after they die, wishing for something to remember them by, by looking at two California cemeteries especially designed for pets - one flourishing, and the other being closed down.
Gates of Heaven was the reason that director Werner Herzog ate his shoe after losing a bet that the film would never be completed. But more than that, it's a curiously calm film that affects people in different ways; they either consider it an amusing portrait of laughable sentimentality, or a profound depiction of how the passing of a pet can open up many philosophical avenues about what happens after death. Will we reunited with our loved ones? And will those loved ones include our pets, assuming you ever had any, that is? For those with animal companions, it's difficult to imagine heaven without them.
This was Errol Morris' first film, and gives clear, self-assured indications of his style, letting his subjects talk to tell the story and reveal themselves, sometimes more of themselves than they intend, to the camera. In this instance the story can be vague, as Morris has obviously sat his interviewees down and told them to start talking without asking too many questions, so the actual situation can be hard to grasp for some while. But at first there is a conflict apparent between McClure and the manager of a rendering plant who takes a smug and matter of fact view of making dead animals into glue, making proud boasts of recycling. The unmentioned point is whether the cemetery owners are exploiting the pet owners as much as the renderer.
The now wheelchair-bound McClure tells us he has buried all sorts of animals in his land, from the reasonable-sounding dogs and cats to the absurd, such as hamsters and mice, leaving you considering if it wouldn't be easier to put such tiny creatures under the soil at the bottom of the back garden. He provided a short ceremony, a coffin and a plot and you can tell it alll comes from a place of love as he speaks passionately about his vocation. But now he is suffering legal troubles as the cemetery land is needed for a housing development and the animal's bodies have to be moved.
The other cemetery Morris covers is one run by the Harbets family, a father and his two sons who had each had given up dreams of being big in insurance and music respectively to work with dad. Most of the film is simply talking heads, and you may begin to wonder what an old lady telling of the troubles she has had with her grandson has to do with the dead pets, but Morris seems to be building a thoughful portrayal of humanity as we see hardly any animals at all, just hearing about how much they were loved by bereaved owners. There's also a nagging feeling that these subjects are being laughed at, although not in a particularly cruel way, more of a "funny old world" manner. As a result, a sense of awkwardness may well descend over you if you're not in a reflective frame of mind, even if certain parts are oddly poignant, like the montage of pet graves.