Documentary Movie Review: Gates of Heaven (1978) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “G” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “G” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Galapagos: The Enchanted VoyageThe Gnomist, Gimme Shelter, Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Rules the World and Grey Gardens.

Title: Gates of Heaven
Release Date: October 1978
Director: Errol Morris
Production Company: Gates of Heaven

This was Errol Morris’ first movie and features several people associated with the pet cemetery business.  Much like his second film Vernon, Florida, which I watched a couple of years ago, the movie is made up entirely of interviews of various people, edited together to build a story.  There is no narration and only an occasional establishing shot and newspaper headline to provide context.

The first part of the movie focuses on Floyd “Mac” McClure who attempts to fulfill his lifelong dream of opening a pet cemetery in Los Altos, CA.  He’s contrasted with a man who runs a rendering plant the traditional destination of dead animals – including beloved pets – where they are turned to tallow.  After McClure’s cemetery fails financially, the 450 animal bodies are exhumed and moved to Bubbling Well pet cemetery in Napa, CA.  This much more successful pet cemetery continues to operate through today under the operation of the Harberts family.  Interviews with the Harberts include two sons, one a dreamy musician and one a practical businessman with experience in the insurance industry.  The film also includes interviews with people talking about the pets they had buried in the cemeteries.

The biggest takeaway from this movie is the wide gap between the philosophy and attitudes of the people interviewed.  At one extreme are the people deeply sincere about there passions,whether it be their pets, their desire to have a place to inter deceased pets, or to play guitar.  At the other are the businessmen who are very crass about their capitalist interests of making a back, whether it be by rendering or burying animals.  The one thing that all these people have in common is an unawareness of how they may come off to other people.

Roger Ebert considered Gates of Heaven to be one of the top ten movies of all time.  Maybe there was something about seeing it as an underground movie in the 1970s when there were no other documentaries like it around had a mesmerizing effect, but I don’t see it as great as all that.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting glimpse into the human experience through an unusual topic.  And it made Werner Herzog eat his shoe.

Rating: ***

Note: I could not find a trailer for Gates of Heaven but the entire movie is on YouTube should you be interested.



Movie Reviews: Gaslight (1944) #AtoZChallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Gaslight
Release Date: May 4, 1944
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

This psychological thriller actually lent its name to the form of psychological manipulation and abuse depicted in the film.  The movie begins just after the murder of famed opera singer Alice Alquist as her niece Paula (Ingrid Bergman) leaves her London home and is told not to look back.  A decade later, Paula is pursuing her own singing career in Italy, but her instructor notices that she is distracted by being in love.  Turns out she’s fallen madly in love with her piano accompanist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer).

Gregory and Paula marry and he manipulates her into moving back into her aunt’s townhouse in London.  Over the weeks and months that follow, Gregory isolates Paula by preventing her from going out and refusing to allow visitors to the house.  He begins to tell her that she’s not well, that she loses things, and is a kleptomaniac. He embarrasses her in front of their saucy, young maid, Nancy (Angela Lansbury).  Paula begins to question her own sanity.

In reality, Gregory is a jewel thief named Sergis Bauer, who murdered Alice Alquist and is now sneaking in the attic to search Alice’s possessions for her famous jewels.  Gregory’s time in the attic leads to Paula noticing the fluctuation in the gaslight (hence the film’s title) and footsteps that add to her sense that she is imagining things.  Inspector Brian Cameron of Scotland Yard (Joseph Cotten, with an unexplained American accent), who was a fan of Alice Alquist, becomes suspicious of what is happening in her niece’s house and reopens the investigation in her murder.  Eventually he is able to help Paula turn the tables against Gregory.  Watching Gregory abuse Paula is extremely difficult, but the ending is very cathartic.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This is one of the movies I watched in a film studies class in high school.  Imagine, if you will, a bunch of 15-year-old boys realizing that the same actress who played Jessica Fletcher was really hot when she was young.  We also were amused by Boyer’s outrageous French accent and spent weeks imitating the way he said “Paula.”

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the basic plot, but none of the details, so it was really like watching the movie anew.

What Did I Forget?:

Most everything.  I’ll also add that watching as an adult, the severity of Gregory’s abuse hit me a lot harder, and I felt a lot of sympathy for Paula.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The movie is melodramatic, but I think that it otherwise is a good microcosm of the very real psychological abuse that occurs in some relationships.  Boyer is convincingly evil while hiding it beneath his charm. Bergman does a great performance of how even a strong person can fall victim to these psychological attacks. It’s not your typical thriller.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This is a 1940s movie based on a 1930s play with a story that is set somewhere around the 1890s, so it should feel dated in some way.  But I think it holds up pretty well overall.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. And definitely a unique addition to an all-time thrillers list.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with G:

  1. Genghis Blues (1999)
  2. Glory (1989)
  3. The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
  4. Good Will Hunting (1997)
  5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

What is your favorite movie starting with G?  What do you think will be my movie for H? (Hint: It’s set in Brooklyn in the 1960s). Let me know in the commments.