Heart of a Dog (Blu-ray) CriterionGordon Sullivan
Imbuing the everyday with a sense of dreamlike wonder.
The world seems to like its artists to be one thing. Painter, sure. Musician, fine. Director, okay. But if you’re a sound artists who does multimedia installations and directs music videos on the side, then chances are you’re never going to be a household name. It’s still amazing that most people only know Yoko Ono as “that woman who broke up the Beatles” rather than “that woman who crafted a 40+ year legacy of performance art, music, and installations.” Laurie Anderson, too, is probably best known to most people (if she’s known at all) as “Lou Reed’s wife.” But like Ono, Anderson has had a multi-decade career as a musician (including an electronic-instrument pioneer), multimedia artist, and filmmaker. She last made a feature in 1986 with the documentary Home of the Brave. She’s returned to feature filmmaking with Heart of a Dog, a moving meditation on canines, absence, and art. Criterion have done their usual excellent job bringing the film to Blu-ray.
The Franco-German TV station Arte commissioned Laurie Anderson to make a film. She elected to make a film about her dog, Lolabelle. In addition to being a big part of Anderson’s life, Lolabelle also painted and played the piano. Heart of a Dog features footage of Lolabelle, as well as Anderson’s illustrations of Buddhist concepts, reminisces on death, and reflections on loss.
It’s very easy to put pets at the center of our lives. The four-legged variety tend to live for years, and that allows them to worm their way into our hearts. Plus, once you’ve given all the attention and affection that most pets get, they’re a part of your life Add in the fact that they tend to share domestic spaces, and you’ve got a recipe for series emotional attachment. Which is great, and one of the reasons we love pets.
But of course the dark side is that pets don’t live nearly as long as humans, in general, and when they leave it can leave almost as big (if not bigger) an emotional hole. Heart of a Dog tries to reckon with the emotional hole left by the death of Lolabelle, Anderson’s companion of many years. The film becomes a reason to explore Lolabelle’s legacy on video, with footage of the dog performing music, painting, and doing slightly more canine-oriented things. But this is Laurie Anderson, so in addition to a celebration of her dog, Heart of a Dog also explores Anderson’s Buddhist leanings. She imagines what it might be like for Lolabelle to travel the bardo, the space in between that is central to Buddhist understandings of reincarnation.
Loss, however, is not discrete. Every loss repeats an earlier loss and prefigures the losses yet to come. So in addressing the absent Lolabelle, Anderson can’t help but address other losses in her life. Anderson has always been associated with New York City, from earning her MFA at Columbia in 1972, to her performances in the later 1970s, and by the 21st century she was a fixture of the city. Unsurprisingly, that gives her some thoughts about 9/11, which she shares in the film as well. It’s also hard not to have the loss of husband/companion Lou Reed shadow the film as well.
All this is packed into a 75 minute film that moves by in a whirl of images narrated by Anderson. It’s her voice and the swiftness of the editing that keeps the film feeling like a conspiratorial conversation rather than a grim “in memoriam” slide show. Anderson has only made two features in her career, but Heart of a Dog clearly shows that she could keep doing this for quite a while.
Criterion have given the film its due on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer supports the material well. Were Anderson not a professional artist, we would probably call much of the footage included in the film “amateur.” It certainly wasn’t capture with high-end cameras and lots of beautiful light. Instead, we get the evidence of the film’s low-fi production, including fluctuations in detail, some wacky colors, and artifacts produced by the capture method. The film shines during some 8mm sections, but overall the film’s catch-as-catch-can visual serve the film more than they showcase a home-theater setup. The film’s DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is more impressive. In addition to Anderson’s narration, she also composed the score, which sound rich and detail in the mix. The surrounds get a surprising amount of use to create atmosphere and showcase the music. There’s also a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track that just features Anderson’s narration, stripped of her score.
Extras start with a fascinating interview between Anderson and producer Jake Perlin. The pair spend 40 minutes chatting about the film, Anderson’s career as an artist, and especially her role as filmmaker. We also get a six minute excerpt from Anderson’s “Concert for Dogs,” which was a special tribute for 9/11 first-responder dogs that takes advantage of the fact that dogs can hear outside the human spectrum. Obviously we don’t get to appreciate everything the pups do, but it’s interesting to see Anderson’s commitment to canine-kind. We get a bit more of the film as well, with two short deleted scenes. Lolabelle appears again for a “Christmas Card,” which is a video of her playing a keyboard that’s programmed with Christmas carols. The film’s trailer is included, as is a booklet featuring an essay by critic Glenn Kenny.
I suspect there’s something in Heart of a Dog for every canine-lover to appreciate, but it’s a film that wears its arty New York City weirdness right out on its sleeve. If the idea of a tiny terrier getting painting and piano lessons sounds too precious, then Heart of a Dog isn’t for you.
Heart of a Dog is a beautiful portrait of pet-ownership and how we deal with loss. Fans of dogs and the work of Laurie Anderson will be equally impressed by the documentary’s light touch and surprising depth. Criterion have done an excellent job honoring the film with this excellent Blu-ray release.