HEART OF A DOG (Laurie Anderson, 2015)
-Mocha J Herrup, PhD
“Don’t kill the dog!,” a longstanding Hollywood dictum imploring writers to keep it light if they want to do well at the box, has been notably flaunted over the years by successful films such as OLD YELLER, MY DOG SKIPPY, and Lase Halstrom’s MY LIFE AS A DOG. Other films including Mike White’s YEAR OF THE DOG and TURNER AND HOOCH did not fare as well. (The latter is one of Tom Hanks’ few flops.)
Happily for us, canicide does not cancel HEART OF A DOG’s appeal. The departure of the artist’s beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle, is a connecting element of a story of stories, not part of an unfolding plot. And it’s a Laurie Anderson film. It was never going to be about the box. It was always going to be inventive, original, dynamic, wry, unusual, and eerily prescient and profound.
While not the next TITANIC, Anderson’s film was a bit of an experimental sleeper hit. After premiering at the Telluride film festival in 2015, HEART OF A DOG was acquired by HBO films and was very well received by critics and audiences. (Movie goers, of course, may be self-selecting – fans who are well primed for an a-typical cinematic experience.)
HEART OF A DOG is a circular collage made up of monologue, re-enactments, archival poetry, 8mm home movies, iphone and Go-Pro footage, and Anderson’s original animation. The film is at once all about Lolabelle, and not at all about Lolabelle. HEART OF A DOG marks Andersons’ career-long fascination with “the fallibility of language,” and it’s also quite clearly about love, loss, Eastern philosophy, terrorism and the new surveillance state. HEART OF A DOG is also about the artist’s mother, her late husband Lou Reed, and Anderson’s dear friend, Gordon Matta-Clark. And it’s a deployment of sight and sound that exceeds all explanation.
The film’s genesis occurred when the Franco-German TV network Arte approached Anderson about contributing to a series of short films by artists explaining their philosophies of life. “I don’t have one,” the ‘O Superman’ creator replied, “And if I did I certainly wouldn’t put it in the shape of a film and make you watch it.” Not giving up, Arte suggested that Anderson build a film around the Lolabelle stories she’d been telling at some of her live performances.
Before HEART OF A DOG, the last full length feature film that Anderson directed was her 1986 concert documentary, HOME OF THE BRAVE. The returning director consulted friend and artist Julian Schnabel (THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY, BEFORE NIGHT FALLS), who appears onscreen for an ultra short cameo. In an interview with Jon Pareles of the New York Times, Schnabel said of the film, “It’s the accumulation of these simple stories that somehow leave you with the feeling of what it is to survive loss. It’s about trying to break down these things to the most eidetic images and to try to understand, how do we go on?”
“It’s mostly questions and zero answers,” Anderson says of her film.
One thing we do know, the dog dies.
“Every love story is a ghost story” – David Foster Wallace