I must have been about ten years when I first saw "Siskel and Ebert". At the time, they weren't called that. It was "At the Movies", and instead of their now-famous thumbs up/thumbs down reviews, they had a simple yes/no recommendation. The two had perhaps been together for a few years prior to that, in the early 70s. Their show had grown steadily in popularity, and was carried by whichever PBS affiliates wanted to carry it.
After they left PBS, it became "Siskel and Ebert At the Movies" and finally just "Siskel and Ebert". They became the two most well-known film critics in the country, even if they weren't necessarily the best critics. Ebert had won the Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism, to date, as far as I know, the only person to have received the award for film criticism (a quick Google search shows that this is untrue). Gene Siskel passed away a few years ago and now Richard Roeper is his co-host.
The success of the show had as much to do with the bickering between the two critics as anything. People often couldn't remember who was Siskel and who was Ebert. They were just known as the fat guy and the other one. The fat guy was Ebert, though since going on a Pritkin diet (not Atkins), he has shed quite a few pounds, though he looks rather sickly these days.
Hard to believe that I watched Siskel and Ebert, and now, just Ebert, have been on the air for some thirty or more years.
One of the earliest reviews I remember was that of Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven. Errol Morris is perhaps America's best documentarian, at least, Ebert would think so. He had often been overlooked for Oscars, as had such luminaries as Spike Lee, because of a penchant by the selection committee to award it to films about the Holocaust. Morris finally won best documentary for Fog of War, and Robert McNamara. Much as Michael Moore used the Oscars to lambaste the President, so too did irascible Errol Morris. Images of a quiet man making quirky films were shattered when a bitter Morris exclaimed that it was about time he had won the award.
Siskel and Ebert loved, I mean absolutely, loved, Gates of Heaven. All I knew about this film was that it was about people who reminisce about their dead pets. This turned out not to be the case. Initially, it follows several men who started up a pet cemetary near the highway, but due to funding problems, eventually had to close down, with the pets having to be dug up and moved elsewhere.
The early parts of the film are the funniest, as they contrast the desire of one man to have a pet cemetary as an alternative to having pets sent to a rendering plant, where they were to be boiled, mutilated, and used in whatever capacity they could be used. These were the so-called glue factories where animals such as horses would meet their fate. They contrast it with a man who works for the rendering plant, and how he has to avoid talking about what he does because it upsets people so much to know what was happening to dead animals.
The story then shifts to another family that also runs a pet cemetary. The patriarch looks like a balding Bill Clinton, as he talks about the pet cemetary. He has two sons. One son is a former insurance man, who believes in the power of positive thinking. Most of his comments are indeed, about positive thought, and mind over matter, and visualizing success. The other son had majored in business administration, thinking it would be easy to get a job, but finding he had to return to the family business, which turns out to be six feet under for animals. He's a hopeful musician, who likes to crank it up, and play his music up on the hill when no one's around.
The film looks older than the year 1978 when it was filmed. At times, it looks like it was filmed in the 60s. While I knew that Morris had some quirky characters in his film, what I didn't realize was how much Morris cares about spatial compositions. While he isn't exactly Hou Hsiao-hsien, he takes long shots as well as anyone. Throughout the documentary, the main arch of the cemetary is filmed from atop a hill. He ends the film with a closeup of the arch, and lingers several minutes in this last resting place of beloved pets. It's a profound moment.
The film is as much a reminder of what life was like in the 70s, from the gaudy clothing, to the son thinking positive thoughts, to the long hair hippy that's the other son. It spends time discussing the lives of these people without always focusing on the pets. The hippy son actually plays pretty well. He talks about being in love, and having a dream to make music, and you realize, even in a pet cemetary, people dream other dreams. It isn't just about providing a service to people, but sometimes, it's just a living.
The static compositions often focus on odd things. In one scene, there's a Coors can. In another, a large number of trophies. In another, a name placard carved in wood. A couple sits in front of wheat or some kind of grain. A woman sits in the couch in her house. The hippy son strums the guitar while lying in a hammock.
I suspect the resonance of this film might be even greater today because it is so much a product of its time. At the time, such ideas as positive thinking, or recycling may all seem quaint. I was also surprised at the level of vocabulary used by interviewees, from the word "kismet" to the positive thinking man's description of science, chemistry, which seems oddly funny. In the end, very much like When The Cat's Away, a French film that seems like it's about the search for a lost cat, but is as much a search for meaning, Gates of Heaven is about the love of pets, but also the business behind pet cemeteries, and the people who live there.
This film had been criticized for making fun of the people who love their pets so, especially, I would imagine, a woman who tries to get her dog to sing, and say that she loves her mama. The film is a stranger beast. While the people are indeed quirky, I don't believe Morris is really making fun of these people. Surely, the attire of the 70s didn't help the cause of the people interviewed, but they are consistently fascinating.
I suspect Gates of Heaven doesn't appeal to everyone. It doesn't have the kind of visual awe of penguins trudging through harshly cold temperatures to raise their young. It seems like it's just talking, and not to a consistent theme. It's not about how people think "pets are great", but instead about how people deal with the people who think pets are great. That level of indirection is enough to prevent the documentary from degrading into sentimental mush, and instead, become something different. It is, in its way, a kind of Rashomon film, with many different people who surround the pet cemetary business explaining what life with dead pets means to them.
Errol Morris would go on to make documentaries such as The Thin Blue Line, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, a documentary about Stephen Hawking, and about Fred Leuchter, also known as "Dr. Death", who tried to find more humane ways to kill people for executions, and said that there was no Holocaust, and thus became an unwitting ally for neo-Nazis everywhere.
Unlike most average documentarians who rely on voice-over (or Herzog, who makes himself a character in his own documentaries), Morris's voice is never heard (or almost never). He lets the subject do all the talking, and thus makes you do all the thinking, absorbing the meaning of it all. I don't know if he was the first to do this, but certainly, it takes quite a lot more skill to do this than to have a narrator. Imagine March of the Penguins with no dialogue, and you can begin to appreciate how much a narrator makes life easier (to be fair, Errol Morris's films clearly do have people talking, just not Morris).
I've just seen Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control and possible A Brief History of Time about Stephen Hawking. I should see that one again. However, I think Gates of Heaven ranks with his others, even as it is one of his earliest efforts. Even if I don't find the man all that pleasant, his documentaries are indeed intriguing beasts.
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