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.



6 thoughts on “Documentary Movie Review: Gates of Heaven (1978) #atozchallenge

  1. It must evoke strong emotions to have Ebert rating it in top 10 and Herzog eating his shoe (while making a doc of it). I may check it out. I had no idea people would send their beloved pets to be turned into tallow after death :( That’s ghastly! Question 1: have you seen the biography/doc about Ebert at the end of his life? Question 2: have you seen a doc about “living cemeteries” out in CA where they make a video that can be watched? It has some famous people buried there. I saw that doc years ago but cannot remember the name of it. It was really good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pets were sent to the rendering plant without their people knowing it was happening. I get the impression that municipal agencies (and even zoos) were just in the habit of delivering animal bodies to be rendered. People like Floyd were horrified to find out this was happening thus providing the impetus for a pet cemetery.

      I watched Life Itself for the A to Z two years ago. It was excellent. I’m not familiar with that other documentary.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. I’ve seen pet cemeteries while living abroad, although I haven’t seen one here in Mexico. All I know is that my family has always buried their beloved pets in their gardens. (Also, that it’s forbidden to throw them away in the garbage can, although it’s quite common still to see this) Places where someone can cremate their loved pets is a new thing here, and something we had to experience this month, because at our new home, we have no garden.


Your comments are welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.