Monday, April 5, 2021

Neglected Gem: Heart of a Dog (2015)

One of Laurie Anderson's paintings of Lolabelle.

The avant-garde artist and composer Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog belongs in the special group of movies that defy categorization, like Dimitri Kirsanoff’s 1926 Menilmontant, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1956 Le mystère Picasso (wherein Picasso creates paintings directly on the screen), and Chris Marker’s 1962 sci-fi short La jetée (which is made up almost entirely of still shots). The ones Anderson approaches more closely are Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and Bruce Weber’s Chop Suey (2001), essays written on film that shift, with the flickering fluidity of dreams, from one topic to another and that seem to redefine cinema as a variant of collage. (Anderson employs actual collage in some scenes, in the way Godard does in his 1960s movies.) Comparing Heart of a Dog to Chop Suey and especially to Sans Soleil is meant to be very high praise. Anderson’s film didn’t attract much attention when it was released in 2015, but Criterion put out a gorgeous disc of it and I’d say it’s indispensable viewing for anyone who cares to see what an artist with a breathtaking imagination and visual gifts can do with the art of film.

Anderson narrates in a hushed, arrhythmic voice-over that suggests a cross between poetry and chant. Ostensibly the movie’s subject is Lolabelle, Anderson’s rat terrier, and sometimes the movie is from what Anderson fancies to be the dog’s point of view. Lolabelle, we learn later, was the product of a mass-produced “puppy mill,” and her first owners were a couple in the midst of a divorce; the husband took her with him up to Canada, where, in Anderson’s vision, she served as the companion of his loneliness and learned empathy (Anderson’s definition of empathy: “to feel sad without actually being sad”). The voice-over doesn’t tell us how she wound up with Anderson; instead we get – right at the beginning of the movie – a dream Anderson had in which a doctor in a maternity ward handed her a bundle that turned out to be Lolabelle. Most of what we learn about the terrier comes from her last years, when she goes blind and her trainer, Elisabeth Weiss, teaches her to paint and sculpt and play piano. These sequences, where Lolabelle uses her paws to spread paint or shape bits of clay and hits the piano keys and barks excitedly, are hilarious and enchanting, like scenes in inspired children’s books. Anderson has prepared us for their quirkiness by telling us that, as a child, she used to make up crazy stories about things that had never happened in the history of the world – and also by reading the dog’s face as, spending time with Anderson in northern California, on the edge of the ocean, she looks up at hawks winging through the sky and, for the first time in her life, sees herself as potential prey. (Anderson’s voice-over, not for the first time, makes a connection to the reality of the post-9/11 world: she says that she knows what Lolabelle is thinking about those hawks because she recognizes the expression from the faces of her fellow Manhattanites who now look at the sky with unprecedented terror.)

When Lolabelle is dying, Anderson fights against the vet’s advice to euthanize her and takes her home instead. Her Buddhist teacher counsels her that animals, like people, approach death and then back away – that entering the realm of death is a process and we don’t have the right to take it away from them. It takes Lolabelle three days to stop breathing, and after she does, Anderson tells us, “finally I saw it: the connection between love and death . . . Death is the release of love.” If you’ve read Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and especially if you’ve seen Philip Kaufman’s incomparable movie version, then you are likely to think here of Tereza’s musings on the perfection of the love she feels for her and Tomas’s dying dog Karenin – like Lolabelle one of the great animals in the history of movies. At this point you realize that the relationship between love and death is the real subject of Heart of a Dog. Anderson brings in the death of her sculptor friend Gordon Matta Clark, who invited his friends to his hospital bed and read to them, and the death of her mother, with whom she had a difficult relationship and with whom she was only able to reconcile, in her mind, after she’d lost her. (I won’t explain because viewers really need to experience this story for themselves.) She also brings in the time she spent, after an accident that almost left her unable to walk, in a ward with other children who were burn victims – a memory so painful that she buried it for years.

After Lolabelle’s death Anderson began to make huge monochromatic paintings of her. They’re gorgeous – I saw a show of them as Mass MoCA not long after I first encountered Heart of a Dog – and they take their place among the many kinds of beautiful images in the movie. These include a forest under snow (mysterious specks of white reminiscent of pointillist paintings) and black-and-white footage from a car going down a snowy road that is slashed with hyperbright orange lights. Both these strange glimpses and the paintings of the dog, in their separate ways, make sense of David Foster Wallace’s line, which Anderson quotes, “Every love story is a ghost story.” Anderson tells us that Clark was one of three ghosts she’s seen in her life. She doesn’t identify the others, and we wonder if one of them might have been Lou Reed, whom she met nearly thirty years ago and married in 2008 and who died in 2013. Anderson never mentions Reed by name in Heart of a Dog, but when Anderson talks about Lolabelle’s last days she uses the first-person plural, and the last thing we hear, behind wonderful footage of a younger Lolabelle, is Reed’s song “Turning Time Around”: “That is what love is / Turning time around.” The movie is dedicated to Reed. It’s like a seventy-five-minute poem in which the alleged subject turns out to be a magnificent controlling metaphor.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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