Monday, September 14, 2015

Laurie Anderson | The Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson's new feature film is about love, death and grief, but her partner of 21 years, Lou Reed, who died almost two years ago, has less than three minutes of screen time in the entire piece. He is seen very briefly in some home movie footage at a beach, he is credited as playing a doctor in a hospital scene (though I didn't notice it) and the film ends on a still photograph of him tussling with their dog, while his song "Turning Time Around" plays over the closing credits. It's the dog - a rat terrier named Lolabelle - whose life and death is recounted in the film. And Anderson's mother, who she is not certain if she loved or not.

Although The Heart of a Dog features drawings and animation from the artist, filmed re-enactments, and both recent home video shot on iPhones and old family home movies filmed on super8, the project never loses sight of Anderson's vocal storytelling as its core. Anderson also composed the score, but it is rarely front and centre (the one exception is perhaps the film's main misstep).

Anderson's previous feature, Home of the Brave, celebrates its 30th anniversary next year. That film documented a full band live concert, in support of the artist's Mister Heartbreak LP. Here the film itself is the performance, and it can be sent out into the world in lieu of a new tour. Anderson, though, is hardly seen throughout the 75-minute film.

"I guess I learned you should never take that many pictures of yourself," she said of her experience as both the director and star of Home of the Brave. "Once, in the editing, we were on a freeze frame of a close-up of me and I thought I should shoot myself if I ever had to look at me again," she told the LA Times in 1990.  

Chris Marker is thanked in the credits of The Heart of a Dog, and his filmmaking style is clearly an influence on her "essay-poem" approach. Anderson's melodic narration centres around the death of her pet, but also manages to touch on some of her ongoing concerns: homeland security, the surveillance state, 9/11, Buddhism, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, etc.

After 9/11, and the hysteria that followed, Anderson decided to get out of Manhattan and visit California with her dog. She has read that dogs can typically understand 500 words. Her project was to ascertain which. But running around in open fields together was too much fun, and she lost track of her goal, and just enjoyed the vacation. At one point hawks began circling, presumably mistaking the dog for a rabbit, or some easier form of prey. They swooped down a few times, before re-thinking their attack and flying away. Anderson recounts seeing a strange look in her dog's eye as a result of this, as if he had just became aware that danger may now also come from the sky - the very anxiety the New York neighbours she left behind were coming to grips with.

A few years later, when Lolabelle becomes blind, the terrier is only comfortable running along the shoreline, where there's the safety of knowing that there are no obstacles. Anderson describes her as running at full speed into the darkness. Later, the dog's trainer decides that it should learn to play piano. We are shown raw footage of the terrier playing along to records, and eventually performing at benefit concerts.

Remarkably, for someone whose work is primarily about storytelling, the film includes two unfamiliar and incredible stories that Anderson has not told before in her work, both about jumping into water. In the first, she miscalculates her ability to do a backflip into a pool, despite never having done one before. She hits the concrete side and his hospitalized with a broken back for two years. Here she learns not to trust adults, when the doctor tells her that she will never walk again. The skepticism doesn't come later, when she eventually does regain her ability to walk, but immediately. She thought it was a crazy notion and dismissed it out of hand, as a twelve-year old.

The second story involves taking her younger brothers on a frozen river late at night, to see the moon. The ice cracks and both boys, one in a stroller, fall through. She dives in to save them, one at a time, and carries their freezing bodies back home. Expecting to be admonished for jeopardizing their lives, she is instead praised by her grateful mother, who was unaware that she was such a competent swimmer. Anderson remembers the moment as the one time when she felt unequivocal love from her mother.

The dog's love is more unconditional, but her grief in dealing with the loss is no less rich or complicated. And while there are a few scenes where it felt clear that the sorrow she was expressing was about her late husband, he is never mentioned by name. It's as if the only way to truly express her grief was to get a few steps removed, or perhaps the acknowledgement that the topic was too painful to ever address in her work.

For Anderson's written tribute to Reed, read her Rolling Stone obituary, here.

The Heart Of A Dog will be released on October 21st. It played last night and this morning at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it can be seen one more time: next Sunday morning. Click here to reserve tickets.

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