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MGM Studios DVD presents
Gates of Heaven (1978)

"The only thing I'm guilty of is compassion. And that's all."
- Floyd McClure, pet cemetery pioneer

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: August 07, 2005

Director: Errol Morris

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:22m:29s
Release Date: July 26, 2005
UPC: 027616902313
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Dana Gould, my favorite standup comedian, imagines heaven as the place where you get to see all your old dogs. And I will admit to watching this movie with a particular poignancy, for snuggled up next to me on the couch was my faithful companion of the last thirteen years, a chow/retriever mix named Clarice. (Tell me about the lambs.) And I'm certainly not alone in being emotionally attached to animals—you need go no further than the daily Intrigo update on this site for more evidence of that. This poignant and strange documentary by Errol Morris taps deeply into that emotional vein, while also establishing the director's alarmingly straightforward though non-confrontational style—the flat affect of his filmmaking allows him to investigate the crevices that feature films just don't have time for, and that aren't as obviously meaty for more traditional documentarians. The cumulative effect makes for a film that informs about a sad and fascinating little corner of commerce, and reveals something about our common humanity that doesn't often make it onto the screen. A pull quote on the front of the DVD from Roger Ebert calls this "one of the top ten films of all time," and while I'm not quite that enthusiastic, what you'll find here is quietly and strangely wonderful.

Morris eschews narration, and has those he interviews placed squarely in the center of the frame, speaking directly to the camera; of course our experience is mediated by the director's editing and choice of subjects, but there's a palpable sense of truth coming directly at us. Floyd McClure, a middle-aged fellow, is at the heart of the matter; he's got a dream of establishing a pet cemetery, and conjures up the still-vivid memory of his boyhood companion, a collie, getting hit and killed by a Model A. Morris covers the development of the project; if the piece has a villain, it's the gentleman who runs the nearby rendering facility—it's where they take dead animals and recycle what they can out of the cadavers. "Glue factory" is McClure's disparaging description of choice; can you even imagine what the smell must be like? On the other hand, as much as we love our animals, it's hard to imagine what, practically speaking, you would do if you were, say, a zookeeper or the owner of a circus, and needed to dispose quickly of the corpse of an elephant or a giraffe.

Stories about other people's pets are like pictures of other people's babies and vacations—fascinating if it's yours, tedious to everyone else—and Morris touches on that, though it's part comic and part sorrowful to look at the monuments erected to Tippens and Scuffy and Miss Muffet and the like. But the film is more interested in the characters inhabiting this little world; the second half focuses particularly on the pet cemetery as a family business, and Morris is content to give the people in his movie time to speak, to reveal themselves to him and to us, to show us their souls. A uniquely shoddy business plan forced the facility to be moved, resulting in horrific headlines in the local newspaper like "450 Dead Pets Going to Napa Valley," but Morris isn't especially interested in the macabre; it's a movie about the living more than the dead, bipeds more than quadrupeds, provocative about the nature of our life here, and what's to come for us after. Milkbones not included.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The colors are a bit dulled down, but that may be an issue with the film stock, and not the transfer to DVD, which is reasonably solid.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Respectable and serviceable here; always audible.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, French with remote access
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Errol Morris' First Person: The Complete Series, Coffee and Cigarettes, The Saddest Music in the World, Kitchen Stories, MGM omnibus trailer
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. anti-piracy PSA
Extras Review: Only some trailers for other MGM releases.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

An eccentric, evocative, understated and carefully edited documentary that evokes great empathy for its subjects while forcing its audiences to ask all the hard questions, about what we're doing here, and where our pets fit into the picture. If Augustine and David Lynch could collaborate on a documentary film, they'd aspire to something like this.


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