Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog—a hybrid of idiosyncratic dream collage and philosophical, political, personal essay—falls into that cinematic category of "not for everyone." The film definitely skews to certain contingents: dog lovers, for example, and lovers of multimedia and modern art, but it's not guaranteed to appeal even to those audiences. For Heart of a Dog is defiantly individualistic, a series of snapshots from inside Anderson's mind. To know her is to love her, perhaps, although it's equally true that some viewers will conclude they'd rather not know Anderson. Heart of a Dog is "arty," to be sure, but it's not pretentious: rather, it's expressive of the scattered state of mind, the reflective state of mind, that attends grief.
Ostensibly, Heart of a Dog serves as a requiem for Anderson's deceased rat terrier Lolabelle. The film opens with Anderson recounting a dream of giving birth to Lolabelle, a projection of maternal love for a pet and perhaps an acknowledgment of guilt over what might be called the unnaturalness of pet ownership. Thinking back over the Lolabelle years allows Anderson to free associate and incorporate other musings on post-milennial life in America: a story of escaping to nature with Lolabelle after the sinister encroachments of 9/11 opens up discussion of nearly overnight changes to daily life in the expansion of the surveillance state, which leads to pondering our own management of the vast data of our lives, the kind of practical memoir we maintain in photographs and other ephemera. It's that kind of film, constructed of reverie after reverie, a bulk quantity of provocative prodding crammed into a svelte 75 minutes .
The primary themes, of course, are mortality and grief. Anderson experienced two other major losses in close proximity to that of Lolabelle: she recounts her estranged mother's delirium—or was it?—before death, and late in the picture we get a glimpse of her husband Lou Reed, who died in 2013 of liver failure (the film ends with Reed's typically witty song "Turning Time Around," which Anderson has described as "a song about trying to be in the present"). Anderson deliberately deals with these deaths in as oblique a manner as possible, choosing instead to offer details of her time with Lolabelle.
Anderson gets away with her wild style because each of her tangents proves to be of interest, whether it be phosphenes ("those things you see when you close your eyes") or the Homeland Security slogan "If You See Something, Say Something," which she likens to a Wittgenstein musing (the intersection of those two ideas isn't made explicit, by the way, but it's there for the taking). Most extensively, Anderson cites The Tibetan Book of the Dead as she considers the imagery and possibility of the afterlife, but she also brings in a Goya painting and Kierkegaard ("Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards").
Altogether, Heart of a Dog amounts to a lyrical autobiographical essay for those open to such a thing. From one point of view, a film like this is no more than a solipsistic NPR white-privilege trip by and for those who could afford to live in downtown Manhattan, as Anderson does. Of course, Anderson is entitled (in both sense of the word) to express her own point of view, for what it's worth and for those who may find her reflections useful. Even the most resistent viewer, should she or he stick it out, is likely to find something of interest here, some point of kinship with this career artist of forty years. Heart of a Dog may have the feel of a video-installation museum piece, but it's also largely about love.
In my own favorite sequence, Anderson comes to an astute conclusion—and, partially, confession—about the delusions of memory and personal storytelling: "And so the thing about this story was that actually I had only told the part about myself. And I'd forgottem the rest of it. I'd cleaned it up...And that's what I think is the creepiest thing about stories. You try to get to the point you're making, usually about yourself or something you learned. And you get your story and you hold on to it. And every time you tell it, you forget it more."
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray special edition of Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog delivers optimal A/V specs and substantial bonus features. The digital-to-digital transfer flawlessly reproduces an image culled from a variety of sources that give the transfer a potentially high degree of difficulty. Detail is excellent, color appears true (consistent, that is, with the film's appearance in theaters and on television), and I didn't discern any compression artifacts. Audio comes in two flavors: the film's official mix in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that offers an alternate no-music soundtrack. While the first is preferable as a faithful, clean, clear rendering of the source, the second gives an interest perspective on the film's editing process: a rough draft to compare to the final (a topic discussed in the disc's first bonus feature).
"Retelling" (41:10, HD) is an extensive conversation between Laurie Anderson and one of the film's coproducers, Jake Perlin, about Heart of a Dog, Anderson's choices in conceiving and assembling the film, and how the film fits into her oeuvre and identity as an artist.
Also here are two brief Deleted Scenes: "What the Mind Sees—Secret Pictures of the Tibetan Sky" (1:47, HD) and "On the Way to Jerusalem" (1:06, HD); 2016 street-concert excerpt "Concert for Dogs" (6:36, HD); and "Lolabelle's Christmas Card" (4:46, HD), a clip of which is featured in Heart of a Dog; and the film's "Trailer" (1:51, HD).
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