Laurie Anderson is one of the world’s greatest living artists, full stop. I’m throwing that accolade out there not only because it’s so very true, but also to admit a bias before I review her latest work, a “documentary” that pushes the boundaries of not-for-everyone cinema to a ludicrous extreme. Those turned off by loose, experimental filmmaking will likely find Heart of a Dog‘s philosophical navel-gazing insufferable. Obsessive cinephiles might also recoil at the film’s cheap, blasé mode of rough visual collage, an aesthetic that combines 80s art school technique with the most disposable of digital photography available. Both sides of that divide might find plenty reasons to groan or roll eyes at Anderson’s verbal meditation & casual poetry. Heart of a Dog is a work that I love & appreciate deeply, but would never be shocked to hear that someone else didn’t feel the same way. It’s the same tone of affection I have for the out-there art of pro wrestlers, John Waters, Death Grips, and Xiu Xiu. You’ll never hear me incredulously ask, “You didn’t like that? Why not?!” I totally get why not. The only difference with Heart of a Dog is that it stimulates a more intellectual, philosophical area of my mind than some of those acts & the type of art I generally seek out typically do.
Heart of a Dog is being billed as a documentary & its distribution was recently picked up by the HBO Docs imprint, but I believe that genre distinction is wildly misleading. The film is more like an act of meditation or hypnosis, playing like a weird lecture from an alternate dimension, a Dianetics DVD for the terminally bizarre. Even though I’m a huge fan of Anderson’s decades of spoken word & experimental pop music work, I’ve been a little weary of watching this film since it was released, because I expected it to be a brave, emotionally bare account of her beloved rat terrier Lola’s death that served as a means to deal with the also-recent death of her husband, Lou Reed. I was selling the artist a little short there. The losses of Lola & Lou inform every frame of Heart of a Dog, but they’re part of a larger tapestry of ideas that cover everything from the modern surveillance state to living in New York during 9/11 to the tenants of Buddhism to the existence of ghosts. Lou Reed’s absence weighs heavily on the proceedings, cropping up in an occasional image or song or dedication, but speaks volumes as Laurie Anderson instead discusses the process of accepting loss in terms of her dog, her dog’s sight, the twin towers, a world before the omnipresence of modern technology, and a mother she feels she never genuinely loved. As with all of Laurie Anderson’s work, Heart of a Dog is a writer’s delight, an intense meditation on the bizarre nature of language, but this film stands as her most fiercely personal work to date. It not only covers the whirlwind of painful change & transition she’s survived in recent years; it also lays out in simple, clear terms how she sees the known world & the unknown one that follows. Nearly every word, sound, and image in the film was created by Anderson herself and by the end credits the film feels like a snapshot of her very soul.
As weighty as that description sounds, Heart of a Dog is just as playful as it is philosophical. When making a “documentary” about death, loss, and the basic structure of the known & unknown universe, it probably helps to keep the mood as light as possible, which Anderson accomplishes by centering the POV on that of a dog. When Lola was alive she was taught to paint, sculpt, and play piano, all on display for the camera. Besides exhibiting these canine works of fine art, Anderson also shifts the camera’s POV to a dog’s-eye-view, playing with shaky, blue-green messes of birds, puddles, trash, and other dogs. You know, dog stuff. There’s also a few wonderfully surreal accounts of Anderson’s dog-themed dreams that toe the line between morbidity & absurdist humor. Anderson knows exactly how ridiculous these moments are, too. As part of Heart of a Dog‘s press tour & post-release growth she’s been screening the film for canine audiences & performing concerts for dogs on talk shows & in art gallery spaces. You always get the sense that she takes the dogs & her performances for the dogs seriously, but there’s also a sly smirk to the whole endeavor that suggests the ridiculousness of the situation (and of life in general) is all part of the act.
If you’re not thrown off by Anderson’s meditative, hypnotic musings on life & the afterlife, you’re just as likely to be resistant to Heart of a Dog‘s oddly cheap & off-putting visual poetry. The film employs a kind of layered visual collage that plays like a shoddy take on the works of Dave McKean, Guy Maddin, and Don Hetrzfeldt in attempt to mimic the scattered, blurred shape of memory & personal perception. Anderson mixes stock footage, digital photography, home movies, and animation to bring her trademark spoken word work to vivid, visual life. Heart of a Dog can sometimes play like a tangled mess of power lines, pyramids, smoke, helicopters, tree branches and, duh, dogs. However, it’s a distinct, deliberate visual style that not only exists to serve Anderson’s intense soundscape & language play, but also taps into the immediacy & intimacy of a private home movie collection.
It’s difficult to say if Heart of a Dog would be a great primer for becoming a fan of Anderson’s work. I didn’t find it to be any more or less accessible than her magnum opus United States I-IV, except maybe that it demands 1/4th of that masterpiece’s run-time. As someone already won over by her particular, peculiar philosophy, language and music, however, I’ll say that I could gladly continue to watch her make these weird little meditative art films forever, though perhaps without the heartache & despair that inspired Heart of Dog in the first place. I wouldn’t want her to have to live through that pain again, but I’d gladly reap the rewards as long as they’re as winning & engaging as this wonderful film.