Diane Keaton wanted to make a film about what happens after we die. So she gathered a group of people together, interviewed them with questions such as, “Are you afraid to die?”, “Is there love in heaven?”, and “How do you get to hell?”

She intercut their responses with a lot of interesting and pretty “heaven” sequences from old movies. Keaton has a fine eye for such images, as she proved in her lovely picture book of old Hollywood publicity photos, Still Life.

Given all that, why does Heaven, the feature-length documentary that Keaton directed, come off as such a largely unpleasant experience?

Primarily it’s because Keaton insists on manipulating the interviews, both before filming (most of the people chosen are religious/social fringies) and after (she cuts the interviews so they appear jumpy and jagged, and the people foolish).

This seems to spring from the sort of geek-show mentality that David Byrne displayed in surveying American attitudes in his True Stories; that is, condescending to its subject. Keaton has denied this, but her choice of grotesque camera angles and close-ups does create a world of freakdom.

Eventually, some of these characters assert themselves, through the film’s process of returning to them. In and of themselves, the responses are quite intriguing; many people believe in the fleecy movie heaven, epitomized by a bunch of people standing around on the tops of clouds. One guy suggests that the whiteness extends to the food; everyone in heaven eats marshmallows.

One man thinks heaven is “like a bride preparing for a wedding”; another calls it simply “relief from tired tootsies,” referring, I presume, to his feet.

One spaced-out woman reveals that Jesus has returned to Earth already, is living in a Pakistani community in England, and is just waiting for the media to come to him, “and have a press conference with the entire world.”

The movie clips are oddly chosen; the most vivid shots are of horrible suffering and death. The absolutely sadistic recreations of hell in religious films will be recognizable to anyone who went to religious grade school. The opening clip, of ’50s-era heads floating against a starry sky, is an authentic piece of spooky camp.

I’m not sure what there is to learn from this film, except that a lot of people have goofy ideas about eternity—and that according to many, those who have different ideas are going to hell, probably. Keaton’s hip approach can’t illuminate those people, so they remain simply weird.

First published in The Herald, May 8, 1987

The film seems oddly unremembered today, considering its director, unless I was right about it. Surprised I didn’t tie the review together by bringing back David Byrne to cite his “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” The whole thing, if I am remembering correctly, took the wrong lessons from Errol Morris’s films, and exaggerated them. Howard Shore did the music, Frederick Elmes the cinematography. Yes, I went to a religious grade school.

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