‘Heart of a Dog’
Director:
Laurie Anderson
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

To the masses, Laurie Anderson is that most feared commodity: a performance artist. Every now and then, though, she creeps into the mainstream. But she’s always done it her way. The surprise radio hit “O Superman,” her cultish music videos, the weirdo concert film “Home of the Brave” — are all deeply steeped in the avant-garde, beckoning audiences to join them by being to their own selves true instead of dumbing things down or, worse, selling out. “Heart of a Dog” is uncompromising/approachable too: it’s a cine-essay, a la Chris Marker or Agnes Varda, that reflects on grief, existence and how to soldier on. It’s also about her impossibly adorbs dog, Lolabelle, who died a few years back. That’s something for everyone.

It’s not only about Lolabelle. Cute dog videos only take up a fraction of the brief running time. Instead Anderson’s second-ever feature film in a long career is a stew of stuff sometimes only tenuously related to the subject of loss (or canines). It swerves left and right into childhood, philosophical musings spoken over abstract imagery, stories of friends or quotes of things she read, surveillance footage (some shot by Anderson from her Hudson River-side apartment), even life in New York after September 11. 

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She keeps returning to her departed rat terrier, sometimes just being a cute dog, sometimes shown doing things that would only happen if she was owned by a capital-A Artist. Lolabelle makes tiny sculptures; she plays the piano over beats, which Anderson records and sends to friends. These bits lead to deep thoughts about how dogs understand about 50 words or about how they’re driven by smell, a sense that humans have evolved to ignore. These lead to other deep thoughts, which lead to other deep thoughts, and so on, occasionally swinging back to Lolabelle, then out again into the ether. 

In a way, the presence of an excitable pet makes such philosophical roaming more palatable to mass audiences, not unlike how you would wrap medication in food, tricking your animal to swallow it by caking it in something tasty. But what she’s talking about isn’t impenetrable yammering, and Anderson’s narration is poetic in a plain and direct way. She makes it universal, trying to relate to us, then, having earned our trust, weaves into things that would only concern a New York City artist: worrying about what the Patriot Act did to privacy, talking about a dying friend who spent his last 24 hours in a group reading of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” or running into her “friend Julian” (Schnabel, that is, viewed in dog-cam).

The elephant in the room is Lou Reed, Anderson’s husband of 17 years, who passed in 2013. The rock god pops up, blink-and-miss-it, as an actor in a recreation of a childhood injury that landed her in the hospital, and in the somber Reed song that runs over the end credits. We’re forced to assume that when she mourns Lolabelle she’s also tacitly mourning her legend of a husband. For all its autobiographical elements, “Heart of a Dog” isn’t a memoir film, and it doesn’t manipulate our emotions. Lolabelle’s death is detailed only halfway through the 75 minutes, and even then she describes the beauty of watching her calm last months. At one point Anderson talks about the idea of “feeling sad without being sad,” a phrase she repeats again and again like a mantra. It’s a difficult, maybe impossible, emotion to achieve, but this gentle, flowing and wise film wants us to imagine it as the only way to go on in the wake of despair. It’s an artiste being both down-to-earth and her own unique self.

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