by Lee Purvey
A line from Kierkegaard, placed halfway through Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog, neatly summarizes the director’s project with the film: “Life can only be understood backwards. But it must be lived forwards.”
These words are at the heart of this ambitious, thoughtful documentary, in which, by attempting to assemble meaning from a number of lives already lost—foremost among them the artist’s beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle—Anderson turns to the past to cope with a pain she continues to carry.
Director: Laurie Anderson
Producers: Laurie Anderson, Dan Janvey
Writer: Laurie Anderson
Cinematographers: Laurie Anderson, Toshiaki Ozawa, Joshua Zucker-Pluda
Editors: Melody London, Katherine Nolfi
Music: Laurie Anderson
Cast: Archie, Jason Berg, Heung-Heung Chin, Bob Currie, Paul Davidson, Dustin Defa, Etta, Evelyn Fleder, Willy Friedman
Premiere: September 4, 2015 – Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 21, 2015
US Distributor: Abramorama
Though most literally about her beloved pet, Anderson’s film touches on themes much bigger than the quotidian particulars of her domestic life. Through remembered moments with Lolabelle, Anderson forms elegant reflections on a broad range of topics: terror and surveillance, Tibetan Buddhism, grief. Sometimes, however, a dog is just a dog—and that is in no way meant as an indictment. While the rise of the “cat video” has undoubtedly relegated pets to the realm of “low art,” Anderson’s tribute to her deceased terrier is delivered with an entirely straight face. At times, she gets a little cute—with POV doggie cam and that creepy insistence on anthropomorphism practiced by some of the more hardcore pet-owning elements—but the tone tilts decidedly more eccentric than pathetic.
Heart of a Dog is what you might call a “poetic” or “experimental” documentary. Anderson’s authorial voiceover offers lucid biographical details one minute, and inscrutable fragments of verse the next. Occasionally, handfuls of words flash on the screen in sequence, but too quickly to catch more than a partial picture of their meaning.
This jumbled monologue is complemented by heavily treated images of diverse origin: animations, security camera footage, 8mm home video, and staged recreations from the filmmaker’s life, featuring Lolabelle and others. Some of these bits are effective (particularly when Anderson recycles her visual art), but the cinematography is mostly uninventive and clumsy, the staged scenes especially recalling the dramatized camp of PBS biopics. Thankfully, Anderson’s excellent score work (she is after all best known for her output as an experimental musician, including the unlikely 1981 hit “O Superman”) helps to elevate the atmosphere, supplying some much-needed gravity to these uneven visuals.
Emerging from this rickety framing is Anderson herself, a multidisciplinary auteur whose curiosity and humanity imbue the film with an original thematic inventiveness. Heart of a Dog is that rare documentary that sets course for the ether and never looks back.
Don’t expect many solutions here, or even much of a thesis. Indeed, Anderson is suspicious of the sanitizing effects of self-narrative. “That’s what I think is the creepiest thing about stories,” she says, at the end of an extended digression about a childhood accident and her subsequent retellings of the time she spent recovering in the hospital. “You try to get to the point you’re making—usually about yourself or something that you learn—and you get your story and you hold onto it. And every time you tell it, you forget it more.”
This might be an odd statement coming from a documentary filmmaker, too willing to highlight the limits of the form. But it’s also a moving apology and manifesto for as ambitious a film as you’ll see this year. Anderson knows this work isn’t perfect, but its ramshackle form allows for some entirely unique exploration of the big themes—of life and loss—that affect us all. After all, Anderson’s still living forwards, stuck in the middle of things. Appropriately, Heart of a Dog is bookended by the same lines: a series of questions.