Intro: Art and psychology are intrinsically linked. The best art illuminates (or attempts to) the human condition, which is, after all, at the core of psychological investigation. This linkage is perhaps best evidenced by looking at popular cinema. While film does not always offer the most insightful perspective on human psyche, it is an effective gauge of the public mindset, if for no other reason than its uncommon hold on the culture's collective imagination. For good or bad, cinema (and television) has far surpassed the popularity of all other narrative art forms. One can convincingly argue that this is partially due to the ease with which most cinema can be digested, when compared with, say, a novel. However, much of film's popularity can certainly be attributed to its overwhelming raw power. Film is a visceral medium, or to paraphrase Canadian director David Cronenberg, "Film has teeth." Movies are potentially an effective instrument by which we can examine our modern psychological landscape, both personal and social, because more than any other medium, it enables us to experience life from another person's vantage point, to walk in their shoes, as it were. Queendom's Reel Psychology series will highlight some of the films that most effectively (or perhaps ineffectively) demonstrate a psychological bent.
Editor's note: The articles comprising this series are written in a decidedly informal, personalized format. In other words, they are opinions and express only the views of the writer. If you have a problem with the views expressed, please, feel free to express yours by dropping us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Released 1978. Documentary directed by Errol Morris
Gates of Heaven is a documentary film quite unlike any other. Rather than attempting to dramatize the reality on which it focuses by highlighting the most poignant and telling moments, it takes the mundane and often inane lives of its subjects and transforms them into something, well, even more banal and ridiculous, yet somehow beautiful and almost poetic in its honesty and truth. Funny and sad, pathetic yet strangely uplifting, the film possesses a depth and ambiguity of emotion seldom matched by fictional films.
After reading a newspaper article with the unlikely title, "450 Dead Pets To Go To Napa", the then unknown Morris was inspired to make his first full-length feature documentary. The film is loosely centered around the transfer of animal remains from one pet cemetery which has gone bankrupt, to another more prosperous pet cemetery nearby. Yet the main focus of the film are the eccentric characters Morris meets along the way; the cemetery owners, employees and of course the grieving clientele, all of whom seem to exist in another dimension somewhere between the local mall and the Twilight Zone. It is told and shot simply in extended interviews without the presence of an interviewer or additional narration, and without the use of elaborate staging or stylized editing techniques. Morris chooses to let his subjects tell their stories and allows his characters and themes to emerge seemingly without directorial interference. I say seemingly because we cannot in all honesty know that this is the case. For all we know, the film may be as contrived as any Hollywood scenario, with Morris skillfully manipulating his subjects to say what he wants if not actually feeding them scripted lines, creating the impressions he desires at his whim. While we might like to think of the documentary form as being real or at least more real that the typical tinsel-town fare, the simple fact is that the documentary form is equally capable of telling calculated lies. Even if the people and events being filmed are completely real, by skillful selection of events and their sequencing, a different reality can be presented.
However, common sense tells us that this is probably not the case with Gates of Heaven. It's unlikely that a filmmaker would take the time and effort to fabricate something that not only defies categorization, but also defies most people's idea of entertainment, and thereby has little chance at achieving fame or even popular interest. That being said, the film has become something of a cult hit and did launch a successful career for Morris as a documentary filmmaker, so perhaps it's a debatable point. Cynical suspicions aside, the film certainly feels real, regardless of whether it actually is or not. It manages to capture a "stranger-than-fiction" quality that only real life seems capable of providing.
The movie reminds me of musician David Byrne's later film, True Stories, with its almost surrealistic fictional portraits of everyday American lives and aspirations, yet while Byrne's film is an obviously affectionate take on the excesses of the American Dream and those who pursue it, Morris' feelings towards his subject matter and subjects is less clear, perhaps because they are more complex.
Initially we feel that Morris' take on his subjects is somewhat mean-spirited, that he is purposely showcasing them as people to be held up to ridicule, a kind of precursor to Jerry Springer and other daytime reality shows that display human nature at its worst so that we may feel superior by comparison. Indeed, there is an underlying mocking tone to much of the material as we guiltily laugh at cemetery employees and customers' desperately inarticulate attempts to find and attach profound meaning to their pursuits and dreams. Yet unlike the sideshow attractions that populate daytime television, we do not have the impression that the people in Morris' film are playing to the camera for profit and/or notoriety. They appear to be more or less honest people, thankful for the opportunity to espouse their own peculiar visions of life and to expand on their simultaneously funny, tragic, desperate, ludicrous and yet always earnest hopes and aspirations.
As the film progresses we begin to view its subjects less with ridicule and disdain and more with empathy and understanding. As with all good documentaries (or fiction for that matter) that provide a window into worlds and lives previously unvisited by the viewer, the film breaks down the barriers of prejudice and makes us recognize that the people we are watching are not that much different than ourselves. This recognition is perhaps strongest during the interviews with the pet owners themselves as they clumsily yet touchingly attempt to convey exactly what their pets meant to them, the heartache they feel at their passing, and why they are motivated and justified in going to what initially strikes us as absurd lengths in order to keep the memory of their beloved pets alive. While we may point our fingers, scoff at their extreme behavior, and smirk at their futile attempts to stave off the inevitability of mortality, only the most callous and coldhearted would laugh at their pain and sorrow which in some form is common to us all.