Errol Morris burst out of the gate with this brilliant debut feature, about two pet cemeteries in Northern California and the people involved with them. Such a description, however, can hardly do justice to the captivating, funny, and enigmatic Gates of Heaven, a film that is about our relationships to our pets, each other, and ourselves. Both sincere and satirical, this is an endlessly surprising study of human nature.
As film critic Eric Hynes explains in an essay about Morris’ early work, “That Gates of Heaven has enjoyed a robust afterlife as a cult film is certainly thanks to its readily apparent pleasures—an irreducible quirkiness, near-irreconcilably happened-upon humor, a singularly warm ironic tone, Burgess’s campily ripe imagery—but also to the less obvious fact that it’s almost impossible to remain attentive to every word of the film in any one sitting. As Roger Ebert, who famously championed it, said, ‘I have seen this film perhaps thirty times and am still not anywhere near the bottom of it.’”
Hynes continues, “In the film, Morris hasn’t yet fully developed his signature visual strategy—incorporating reenactments, stylized studio sets, the ‘Interrotron’ direct-address-enhancing interviewing tool (in which the subject can see Morris’s face in the lens of the camera), and a multicamera, cubistic approach to sit-down portraiture—but already present is a sophisticated interplay between what we hear and what we see. It’s in his first two films that Morris introduces himself as the greatest innovator of the ‘talking head’ in the history of the documentary arts. The shots are arranged, the subjects are posed, conspicuously, inviting you to recognize the composition and frame, to appreciate that there’s an artificiality to their talking to a camera, and implicitly to us. In Gates of Heaven, especially, it’s as if the interviews were conducted while a long-exposure photograph was being taken, and instead of waiting for the image to emulsify, we’re waiting for a deeper, stranger, more complex truth to arise.”
Running December through January, the American Quirk Film Series is presented in conjunction with Wonder, Wild, Whimsy: Folk Art in America, on view through February 28. Like this stupendously fun and surprising presentation of American folk art created between 1800 and 1925, the American Quirk Film Series explores creative expression and examines cultural identity through the works of American documentary filmmakers Les Blank, Albert and David Maysles, and Errol Morris.
Director: Errol Morris | USA | 1978 | 83 minutes
Tickets are available online until 2:30 pm the day of the screening or 2:30 pm on Friday for weekend matinees. Tickets are also available at Visitor Services, or by calling 901.544.6208 during regular business hours. Unsold tickets are also available in the rotunda immediately preceding a screening.