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Laurie Anderson’s Big Heart of a Dog

Roberta sees a new Laurie Anderson movie and says that while it's sad it's also funny.


Bring your tissues. Because even while the Tibetan Book of the Dead says “No Crying” — as you will be reminded while you are on your second tissue (or third) — Laurie Anderson’s new film, “Heart of a Dog,” is a weepy affair about death. It’s also funny and dreamy, most of all, dreamy.

Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson,
Image courtesy of Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films

“Heart of a Dog” is not exactly about death, although it deals with a lot of deaths. It is more about love, loss, time and memory. And because it uses personal loves and losses in her life, and reveals unbelievably harrowing incidents from her childhood in stories that are raw and personal, the movie feels like a therapy session, although it’s not clear who’s on the couch, you or Anderson.

The movie, 75 minutes long and made with a variety of film media, from 8mm home movies to iPhone video, swims along in story-chapters with a kind of dream logic. Two things glue the piece together: the music, a mix of moody violin and cello and electronic sounds that are a signature of Anderson’s; and Anderson’s narration, sometimes audible in her low-pitch, breathy voice, and other times typed out overlaying images or black screen. It’s gorgeous to look at on a small screen, which is how I saw it. But it will be an aesthete’s dream viewed on a large screen, with the sound amplified, which will heighten the emotional charge.

Laurie Anderson Heart of a Dog scene from the movie
A scene from HEART OF A DOG Image courtesy of Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films

“Heart of a Dog” muses on the journey to death of:  Anderson’s dog Lolabelle, her friend Gordon Matta Clark, her mother, (and while he doesn’t get a lot of treatment he is there in the core idea of the movie), her husband, Lou Reed. Death is a springboard to talk about the slipperiness of memories, philosophies of life, and also, because Anderson lives in the real world as well as in her heady head, about things like NSA data collection and its new facility in Utah, which the artist compares to the Egyptian kings’ “data collection” in the pyramids. The idea of data collection, surveillance and the intrusion of technology into our lives since 9-11 recurs throughout.

Like a dim sum sampler, with celluloid savories wrapped in a philosophy wrapper, the movie hums along. A scene of Lolabelle and Laurie walking down a shore path to the beach in Northern California seems ordinary, until the narrative unfolds, of the danger from the sky above, from hawks swooping down and sizing up Lolabelle for lunch, and Lolabelle’s dawning of a new thought, echoing the thought of all of us on Sept. 11, 2001, that danger can lurk also in the beautiful clear blue sky.

Laurie Anderson Heart of a Dog movie scene from the movie

A scene from HEART OF A DOG Image courtesy of Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films

Lolabelle is the actual and metaphorical heart of the movie, and Anderson’s sadness about her passing to the bardo (the place a soul goes after death according to Buddhist teaching) is tempered by the stories of the little dog’s life, so rich, and full of fun. Rat terriers like fun, according to a brief, funny, dog-psychology moment in the film. Footage of the aging and blind rat terrier playing the piano, giving concerts, recording a Christmas record as well as painting and sculpting abstract works, if not hilarious, because there’s no slapstick or cheesy hilarity here, are humorous and life-affirming.

Laurie Anderson Heart of a Dog movie image
A scene from HEART OF A DOG Credit: Image courtesy of Abramorama / HBO Documentary Films

Pacing is everything in a movie, and I would have appreciated less time in the bardo, a mournful place. Anderson’s vision of Lolabelle’s time in the bardo, presented in a montage of her charcoal drawings was shown in 2011 at the Fabric Workshop and Museum, by the way. The video clip on the FWM’s website of Anderson’s performance, called “Animal Stories” tells the Lolabelle/hawk story the way it is narrated in the movie. Watch it at the FWM website.

If you’re a newcomer to Anderson’s work and receptive to the idea of beauty and anguish going hand in hand, you will enjoy this movie. And if you’re a fan of the artist, you will love it. Anderson, with her wry commentary about the world and her funny observations, as well as her dead-serious musings on the nature of life, death, afterlife and relationships, is a great companion and friendly friend, perhaps one of the smartest people you know. And stick around for the entire credit roll at the end to hear all of Lou Reed’s song, “Turning Time
Around,” you won’t regret it.

DIRECTOR: Laurie Anderson CAST: Laurie Anderson
This film is Not Rated by the MPAA.
Running time 75 minutes.
Ritz at the Bourse
Opening Nov. 13, 2015