Gates of Heaven (1980)–Review

Reid Said:

June 5, 2004 at 8:42 am

I saw Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven. The film revolves around the building and maintenance of a pet cemetary and the people that were involved with this. But like many other of Morris’ films, the viewer can find the real subject of in the subtext of the movie.

Mitchell Said:

June 5, 2004 at 10:01 am

Roger Ebert has repeatedly called Gates of Heaven one of his twenty best films ever made, so of course I was eager to see it.

I understand why he says what he says, but there are other documentaries that do it better. Except for a few flashes of WOW, the film is rather dreary and uninteresting. The people and their stories are fascinating, but that isn’t explored enough.

Reid Said:

June 7, 2004 at 1:03 pm | Edit


I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on Gates of Heaven. What do you think the film was about? What did the old lady reveal in her interview (that one long interview). A review I read called that one of the best moments in documentary history.

Mitchell Said:

June 7, 2004 at 8:53 pm | Edit

Gates of Heaven, like all good documentaries, is about more than its subject matter. It’s about people and the societies they live in.

When that old lady goes off on that tangent, we see someone put her guard down; she reveals herself in a way more dramatic than if she’d disrobed. When she first starts talking, we are taken by the novelty of this woman and we’re ready to chuckle at her, but by the time she’s done, we realize we know lots of people like her. We maybe see ourselves there. And we certainly don’t feel like chuckling.

I’d agree that this is one of the best moments in documentary history.

What Ebert loves about this film is better revealed in other documentaries, I think. Spellbound is a great example of a documentary that is about more than just its subject matter. It’s a celebration of America and its values. It even manages to reveal that its own subject matter is itself a celebration of America and its ideals–when the pronouncer says that yeah, the National Spelling Bee is antiquated, but it dates to a time when we thought spelling well meant you were educated and intelligent, and it reminds us every year that we in America value education.

The characters in Gates of Heaven are quirky and tragic and beautiful and flawed, but no more so than the subjects of Spellbound or Roger & Me or even Trekkies. I’ll instead take Spellbound and Roger & Me any day. For that matter, give me The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, Part II: the Metal Years, Hoop Dreams, Hell House, or even, on its better nights, Cops.

Reid Said:

June 8, 2004 at 7:51 pm | Edit

But what was it that you saw in the old woman? Here’s what one reviewer said,

“The naked intimacy of her knowing confessions0–both her knowing confession (what she says), and her unknowing confession (what we surmise about her form what she says)–will make you squirm in your seat, but you will be unable to look away.”

What was her unknowing confession? Was that she could really get around?

And what was Gates of Heaven about?

I prefer Roger and Me and Spellbound, but I understood those films a lot more than GOH.

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