One of the summers I worked at camp I had a camper ask me if I thought people’s pets went to heaven. It was a serious question. He asked me at a time when no one else was around. He looked me in the eye and almost whispered it. I told him I didn’t know and asked what he thought. He told me that he thought they did. He told me if heaven was perfect then there was no way his dog wouldn’t be there as he loved his dog. It didn’t make sense for his dog not to be there. I told him that sounded good to me and that I agreed.
Gates of Heaven is an entire movie of people talking about dead pets. I’ve watched it numerous times and have no idea whether it is a comedy, drama, or something else entirely. What I do know is that it is singular. What makes it so unique is in his interviews, director Errol Morris asks people give their answers to some of the biggest questions in life without ever directly asking them the questions. It’s a great trick. By asking individuals to talk about their dead pets and what they meant to them, he is in fact getting people to discuss much more if one reads between the lines.
When people are asked what they think the purpose of life is or what they think happens after we die, we often get philosophical musings that are either inaccessible, not relatable, or far too complex for the speaker to even articulate. By asking about dead pets and their significance instead, people are able to let their guard down and really get into those bigger questions: One man talks about how he knows what his dog will do when he has his back to it, whereas he couldn’t do that with another human. Another person describes how God wouldn’t decipher who gets into heaven by whether or not they are walking on two or four legs, as though they had a choice in it. Sometimes people end up asking some of the most profound questions, ‘Your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?’
The film itself is full of humorous, touching, and tragic moments. The beauty is, depending on when you view it, those moments change. During one viewing I found Danny Harbert’s guitar solos over the hills of graves at Bubbling Wells Pet Memorial Park to be utterly hilarious. This man buries dead animals all day and then plays them tunes in the evening. The next time I watched it, I found it to be the most touching scene. This man finds peace in playing his guitar over the beautiful Napa hills in response to burying dead pets with dignity all day. Would Danny see it that way? It’s an irrelevant question because, just as in life, we the viewer are asked to decipher meaning as thoughts and feelings are presented without context or much familiarity with the speaker. Our very responses and reactions to the words and actions within this movie reveal so much of our own selves. Are we cynical or optimistic? Detached or engaged? Do we desire irony or sincerity?
I think one of the desired takeaways from this film is the power of hope. If the film was about people and their pets, the themes would most likely be about love, support, acceptance or the need for community. Because the film is about people’s dead pets, I think the underlying theme is hope or people’s desire for hope. Individuals are protesting the closing of a pet cemetery. They talk passionately about what their pets meant to them and what made them so unique. Why? They want their deceased animals taken care of because they want to believe their lives were significant. If their pet’s lives are deemed insignificant or they are fit for a rendering plant, then what does that say about the rest of their own life? If the thing that brought them the most joy doesn’t matter, what does? However, if their pets do matter than there is hope that something else might too.