Written and directed by: Laurie Anderson
I’ve come to discover in the last year that I don’t like documentaries very much. I don’t mean that quite literally. I’m sure most people have interests that can be well described in the cinematic medium: and just this summer I learned a lot of from Three Identical Strangers and been struck by the warm cultural uniqueness of Mr. Rogers as told in Won’t You Be My Neighbor. Nonetheless, I’ve found that what makes a documentary most memorable is when it abandons the ambition to educate about “objectively” important subject matters and opts instead to celebrate the gaze of its auteur. That quality was what made Agnes Varda and J.R.’s Faces Places one of my favorite films of 2017, and it is also what I enjoy in Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog.
I knew little of the film before I rented it. I’d been told it was a tribute by the filmmaker to the life of her dog, and it appealed to me as the kind of thing I’d want to see even if it wasn’t “great.” Those who know the film will realize of course this description is entirely inadequate. Anderson demonstrates that she easily could have made the film I expected. Her celebration of Lolabelle the rat terrier is not a mere product of mourning, but is based on what were clearly very accute observations of her multi-talented dog over the course of its life time.
Anderson tries to enter into the consciousness of her dog and does so convincingly, but the film is really an exploration of her own mindset. It starts psychoanalytically with her describing a dream she has in which she gives birth to her dog and goes on to explore her feelings around the passing of her mother, a friend/artist and post-9/11 America. While these ideas can feel tenuously connected at time, Anderson manages to be relatively educational voice, while relaxing viewers a soothing and articulate manner (a style of speech she, humorously and perhaps unwittingly, describes as condescending in one particular moment of the film).
As the film proceeds and its focus on death becomes more explicit, Anderson touches on Budhist teachings about how death should be handled as spirits proceed to the Bardo (an afterlife realm where the dead transition into non-existence). If I have one qualm with the film, it is in this moment that it begins to lose its pace: rather than jumping from one loosely connected anecdote to another, it focuses on budhist teaching.
The film ends after concluding a thought introduced in one of its early moments. It is a logical ending, though it’s not a work that reaches an obvious conclusion either. Since Heart of a Dog ends up being a work about death acceptance, and it teaches that the dead should not be called back once in the bardo, it is perhaps prevented from taking a more melodramatic conclusion as it ends. This makes sense of course, though it is perhaps disappointing that viewers are not given one more chance to see Lolabelle. It is also worth noting that the film ends with a dedication to Anderson’s husband Lou Reed (who makes a brief, unrecognizable cameo as a doctor in the film), who died shortly after the film was made though it’s hard to say whether any part of the film is (or could have been) specific to mourning him.
In all Heart of a Dog is an eccentric personal project, but one that works outside of the head of Anderson because of its commitment to being educational. It may not be for everyone, but given that it’s concise, covers a range of subject matter, and of course features a dog, many viewers should at least give it a try.