Heart of a Dog: Laurie Anderson’s Essay-Poem

heart_of_a_dog_1Though Heart of a Dog, Laurie Anderson’s poetic essay, is only 75 minutes long, it’s one of the densest features to be seen in Venice this year, both in text subtext.

It includes childhood memories, video diaries, musings on data collection, the new surveillance culture, the Buddhist concept of afterlife, along with tributes to the artists, writers, musicians and thinkers who have inspired her, some in her own backyard in New York’s West Village.

Abramorama and HBO Documentary Films have acquired the movie just days before its world premiere at Telluride. Abramorama, which will handle all North American rights excluding TV, will release the film theatrically October 21 in N.Y., followed by national release, while HBO will air it in 2016. Largely due to its unique nature, Heart of a Dog bears the distinction of playing at all the major fall festivals: Telluride, Venice, Toronto, San Sebastian, New York.

heart_of_a_dog_2On the one hand, Heart of a Dog unfolds as a Godard-like essay, with clever and knowing reference to literature, philosophy, and language, and on the other, it’s loose enough to appear as a more spontaneous meditation on love, loss, and life. What unifies the seemingly disparate ideas and images is Anderson’s narration, which is smart, lucid, and in moments so touching it might reduce you to tears.

A pioneering performance artist, she is concerned with various forms of storytelling– what are good stories, how they are created and told–taking her motto from Davis Foster Wallace, who has said that “every love story is a ghost story.”

At the center of the piece is Anderson’s homage to her rat terrier Lolabelle, who died in 2011. Not many dogs–not even MGM’s Lassie–have received such a loving and honorable tribute. The bond between Anderson and Lolabelle is intimate and profound; she recalls a dream in which she had the dog sewn to her stomach so that she could give birth to her.

heart_of_a_dog_3_laurie_andersonThe film contains some light and comic images, such as the paw sculptures Lolabelle made with the help of a trainer, and video of the dog playing the keyboard in Christmas and other charity events. We get to see how Anderson dealt with her pet’s blindness, illnesses, and dying, a process she might have prolonged deliberately.

The essay’s more serious sections deal with the vastly different American life in the post-9/11 culture, depicting the invasive surveillance, the Homeland Security trains, the NSA’s data center in Utah, the daily sight of trucks carrying private information about innocent citizens. Anderson also shares intimate stories of her own childhood (how she almost lost her younger brother in a frozen lake), the practices of other cultures in dealing with death and loss, and she never forgets her neighbors, especially the late artist Gordon Matta-Clark, whose trademark work involved cutting full-sized houses in half.

Anderson’s treatment of both the “heavier” and “lighter” issues is sincere and compelling, and not in the least pretentious or self-indulgent, but it makes demands on the viewers to concentrate on the rich ideas and sounds, and assumes they are familiar with Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Goya, among others.