It has been almost 30 years since performance artist/musician Laurie Anderson directed a movie about herself. What a leap in perspective is Heart of a Dog, a cinematically poetic meditation on love, death, government surveillance, Buddhism and her own upbringing in a house of seven children.
Anderson recently endured some heavy losses in her life, her husband Lou Reed and her rat terrier Lolabelle. Death is a heavy thing and does not have meaning without life. Regrets, ghosts and Anderson’s upbringing as part of a large nuclear family with a mother she wasn’t sure really loved her, not to mention NSA surveillance, all thus heavily figure into this ingenious, free-associative documentary.
On her record albums, Anderson’s existential concerns have long been on display. On her 1982 avant-garde pop music debut, Big Science, song titles like, “Born, Never Asked” and lyrics like “You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling,” capture the simple but rich ideas Anderson has long experimented with. It may seem as though she has devoted her career to turning the big questions of life and experience into art. Her musings have grown much more sophisticated, even wittier over time but no less embracing of the great mystery of the ominous inexorable punctuation point to life and how these two notions weave together.
As with her thoughts, Anderson’s distinctive sing/speak voice is also present in the film with all its soothing character, kicking the film off with thoughts like, “What are the very last things that you say in your life? What are the very last things that you say before you turn into dirt?” She composed her own score whose melodies come from cello and violin but also feature samples of nature and helicopter propellers mixed with quiet, synthesized drones. The opening titles feature a minor key melody but also a bright quality, reflexive of the dichotomy of exuberance of life and the sadness of loss.
Visually, there is a similar musical quality to Heart of a Dog. The film feels like a sprightly montage of Anderson’s paintings, photos and video of Lolabelle mixed with liberal images of beautiful plays on light through the filter of decayed, damaged film stock or images of rain-speckled sepia windows. The worn still film images of Lolabelle in happier times frolicking in the meadow or home video of Anderson’s siblings on decayed 16mm home movies, slowed down to highlight blurry figures of people, also represent mortality in the decay, similar to the films of avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison.
Anderson’s voice, soft and clear in its delivery, over these expressive images feels like guided meditation. Anderson has always sung/spoken with a relaxed, staccato, even deadpan tone, but it has grown less antsy over the years. She also has an amazing sense of humor. Early in the film, she notes the notion that rat terriers are said to understand 500 words. After Sept. 11 — when the oppressive surveillance of Manhattan inspires Anderson to escape to seaside California meadows — she decides she will spend some time figuring out exactly what those 500 words are. Another fine example of Anderson’s humor uses a series of famous quotes by Ludwig Wittgenstein, where she turns the Austrian philosopher’s thoughts that experience is limited by language, into one of the biggest jokes of the movie. This, in turn, becomes a triumph for her chosen medium of film and visuals to explore life and death.
Some viewers may find the tangents to concerns of Sept. 11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the NSA rather oblique. But, as with anything by Anderson, everything is connected. There are inextricable links in the film’s perspective. The green and gray surveillance images are compared to how dogs see the world, linked to another sense: smell. Humans lost their acute sense of smell after learning to walk upright, notes Anderson. There is also a sense of humanity lost in the surveillance images, with their wide, all-seeing gaze on traffic. They take in so much information that is never processed as anything more than data, removed of the human experience that we filter through stories we tell, whose details, both chosen and ignored create false impressions. Both have detriments when taken on their own, but what if we were aware of both, could it make life and death easier to understand? Death matters. Images matter. Music matters. Stories matter. They are life and give death and love value.
Heart of a Dog runs 75 minutes and is not rated (it may have some rare cases of some salty language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Dec. 11, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema; further north, in Broward County, it opens at the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. It continues its run theatrically in South Florida on Dec. 18 at O Cinema Wynwood and the Lake Worth Playhouse. On Dec. 25 it begins its run at the Living Room Theater in Boca Raton. Finally, it opens Dec. 27 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For dates in other U.S. cities, visit this link. All images courtesy of the film’s distributor, Abramorama. The Coral Gables Art Cinema provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.