Gates of Heaven, Errol Morris’ debut film, certainly created that eccentric rhythm featured in his later features. For his first film, oh, where to initiate! The beginning sequences consist of a conversation with Floyd ‘Mac’ McClure, a man similar to Robert S. McNamara in that he presents himself as a man incapable of human error. McClure’s naivete is rampant, as long as he makes sure his animal clients are laid properly to rest. McClure’s life passion is precisely this, to open a decent pet cemetery in California, and create a spiritual haven for people and their late pets. His drive appears steadfast, but McClure likely had little preceding knowledge to his subsequent financial afflictions that pulled so heavily at his heart strings. The experience of starting the pet cemetery caused for McClure a great social strain from fellow human beings. He states a few times that humans are indeed unreliable and corrupt creatures, whereas pets are more intuitive to humans and harbor a better spiritual connection.
Almost as early as meeting McClure appear other individuals who are too involved in this man’s pet cemetery dream. These people include his business rival, once business partners, other pet cemetery owners, and couples that are experiencing the loss and burial of their beloved pets. Mac’s story comes to pass rather early in the film, allowing other pet cemetery businessmen, such as the Harberts men, to explain why they feel impassioned by the career. The Harberts family --father and son-- soon becomes the center of attention, the son in particular.
By no mistake does Errol Morris include these men to begin a discussion on personal discourse over the afterlife--why it exists, who is allowed/what is allowed in Heaven. The narrative weans away from the late animals and their legacies unto the human interviewees, thus exploring deep philosophical stances of people who are involved in a grave business. Also including their particular sentiments over the matter of success and individual growth as well. The spectator cannot get enough of the tediously haughty life advice from Philip Harbert --”mind over matter”-- knowing en masse that some of his points, on say mental confidence, may actually be kosher. Ultimately, it is up to the viewer’s preference.
The film visual, on the other hand, is surely aesthetic, in a rather enigmatic way. Much of the dead center shots put a serious touch to the topic of death and the afterlife, although they are so centered that one cannot help but be amused. With serious respect to those interviewed and the animals lost, this Errol Morris production is quite distantly ironic. Ironic in that the shots appear so basic when discussing such intricate, ineffable topics as death, vital growth, and the afterlife. To boot, the color exposures are a riot because they feel so particular to the late 1970’s-- the fashion, the furniture, and the vegetation are all of a jazzy glow. The exposures are, sincerely, of a great droll contrast to the miseries of figuring out how to live and die, despite your species of birth.