November 19, 1980 [Gates of Heaven, Heaven's Gate]

For a minute I was confused: Hadn't I already seen Heaven's Gate? Why did it sound familiar?--and then it rose up: Gates of Heaven, the pet cemetery documentary--where did I see it? Did I see it? My memory of it was warped at first, fragments of false bravado and anxious uncertainty, slightly crazy people speaking calmly about rendering dead animals, burying others--but more than that:

At the end of chapter four of The Origin of Species, Darwin brings up the analogy of the tree of life. And my children put together construction-paper family trees in school. My grandmother had a knick-knack, a small silver tree with tiny family photos hanging from the branches, grandparents at the top, their three children lower down. I was happy to see them all lined up, pendant from the tarnished silver. Like Darwin's tree: beautiful and reassuring that certain animals enjoy "a protected station" and thrive like a low, straggling branch that should have withered but lives on.

Gates of Heaven's director, Errol Morris, seems to have watched Andy Warhol, then went further, deeper than the amateur and the accidental, the stumbling, lurching, leering kitsch manufactured in The Factory, where Warhol charted the intersection of the ingenious and the disingenuous along a barely navigable course. Morris, though, holds still his subjects and leaves them be in an isolated space, where all they have is themselves. He frames them in self-consciously centered poses, almost as if they're being booked on suspicion (of being silly or crazy or simply stoned)--or they sit low in the frame, with the sky or a wall of cacti rising above their rock-still hunched forms, unconscious parodies of themselves.

Morris' subjects are not interviewed; instead, they deliver monologues, often uncomfortably prompted to continue speaking by Morris' stubborn silence--a refusal to fill any dead air himself--while the camera relentlessly rolls. And we become co-conspirators in a plot against the movie's subjects--or perhaps, in watching them unreel their sometimes-agonizing attempts to make sense, we become their protectors--or better yet, allies, insisting they be given their due, and even realizing the truth of their convictions, and the extent to which we share the mourners' commitment to making their animals more equal than others. Their love is expressed unselfconsciously, as they memorialize their pets and in the next breath discuss their fur coats and platters of meat ruined by the smells of exhumation and rendering. "A protected station," indeed: Becoming a pet removes one from the struggle for existence in a fundamental way; owning a pet allows for a blissful, albeit partial, ignorance of one's shortcomings, while simultaneously providing an opportunity to generate an ideal in the form of the pet.

I remember a sequence of shots of dog and cat headstones. None of the memorials are dopey or campy or morbid; all of them are simple and unashamed in their affection for the pets. I found myself noticing the birth-death dates; many of the pets lived only two or three years, and yet they are accorded their due. Naturally, this never entirely stops being weird, but in that lingering sequence of shots, Morris seems to acknowledge the honesty of the pet-owners' love; any ironic wink is replaced by a respectful glance toward those little animals at rest.

--But that was not Heaven's Gate. For that I went to New York and caught the premiere, and felt the audience drift away, the golden hours of the film--it shines like a memorial at sunset in every frame--weighing on them. When it was over, they left quickly, as if the movie were asking for a handout.

But I sat and watched the credits, and let Morris' dead pets wander in, both movies memorializing something. Cimino's movie, though, disdains the aesthetics of irony, opting instead for gargantuan headstones for every lost soul--the irony is all in the plot, the immigrants burnt down like a prairie fire, the invention of open range free enterprise brutally effective. And maybe the irony goes further than history but to the movie itself, a Big Picture everyone hates, its leisurely stroll and unblinking gaze almost unendurable--but somehow I loved it, I could feel Hollywood's knees buckling under the weight of it, their own history too much like the range wars on screen to make anyone comfortable, including the audience--not that anyone cared. Then again, neither does the movie: Like Bertolucci's 1900, Heaven's Gate cannot stop growing, delivering under the tree the bitter eulogy that continues long after the last mourner has gone home to a hot meal and a warm bed.


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