Knowing little about avant-garde artist and musician Laurie Anderson and her new film Heart of a Dog when Criterion announced this release, To be honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to it and had placed it at the bottom of my priority list of December releases. When a copy arrived in the mail, I opened it up and immediately my impressions (such as they were) of it started to change. The Criterion release comes with a lovely insert featuring Anderson’s illustrations as well a particularly gracious and compelling essay by Glenn Kenny called “Enough Time to Hold Love in Your Grasp.” Accompanying this insert is a mini art folio with vellum sheets. I started to realize that this release was a labor of love inspired by a unique film, and I was anxious to dig in.
Heart of a Dog is a feature-length essay film and visual feast (with animation, 8mm film, and CCTV to go with its digital photography shot by Anderson herself, giving it a kind of home movie vibe at times) that covers a lot of ground while remaining deeply personal and rooted to Anderson’s relationship with her pet rat terrier, Lolabelle, the dog in the title.
Over the course of 75 minutes, Anderson seemingly goes from idea to idea — the death of her mother, September 11, the day a few hawks thought Lolabelle was their prey, CCTV, Wittgenstein, Lolabelle’s blindness, the death of Gordon Matta-Clark, love, rain, Tibetan Buddhism, the death of her husband Lou Reed. For quite a while I was thoroughly enjoying the journey moment by moment, not quite sure where we were going or how we were getting there, but not caring in the slightest.
Through voice over Anderson takes us on this journey. Again, my initial impression (that this would be a bit pensive, dour, lugubrious, a dirge) was dashed immediately when her animated image pops up and starts the talking: “This is my dream body, the one I use to walk around in my dreams.” Her narration is always welcoming, her voice tender and confident, her script penetrating and approachable. She tells stories as well as the best raconteurs, again making every moment engaging even if its placement in the whole is not obvious at first.
But this is an essay with a solid focus and a structure that magnifies that focus: this life is sometimes comfortable and beautiful, and all of that can change in an instant, so how do we make sense of any part of this journey?
I guess, given what little I knew of it, that sight unseen I thought Heart of a Dog was going to a be an abstract, highly experimental, self-serious rumination on dogs, I guess. I’m glad that I had the opportunity to find out how wrong I was. This is a touching, tender, and humane film filled with life while it talks about loss.
The Criterion Collection Edition: While there are few supplements, and some of those are, fittingly, light-hearted, this is a nice edition.
- Retelling: In this 41:10-minute supplement, Anderson talks to Jake Perlin, a coproducer of the film, to talk about how the film fits into Anderson’s work. She’s made only two films, after all, and the prior film was made thirty years ago. Nevertheless, this type of artistic expression suits Anderson while fitting into her larger body of work.
- Deleted Scenes: There are two short deleted scenes presented, and because I enjoyed the way the film comes together slightly piece-meal, I was happy to get some more pieces to the project. There is no context about where would have fit into the film, but now I’ll forever think of the nun who wears a bag over her head when I think of this film. It’s a haunting short story.
- Concert for Dogs: Early in 2016 Anderson held a concert for dogs in Times Square in honor of the dogs who work with the NYPD and other emergency response groups. This is a 6:36-minute excerpt. Here we get to see Anderson herself performing all of the music on instruments she herself invented. She’s an amazing woman.
- Lolabell’s Christmas Card: This is 4:46 minutes of Lolabelle playing a piano while Christmas music plays in the background. No, Lolabelle isn’t playing the songs herself, and, no, Lolabelle isn’t even in time. But it’s still charming and personal if a bit unexpected.
- The disc also comes with a trailer and the aforementioned insert, essay, and mini-booklet: