By Ray Pride
“Hello, little bonehead. I’ll love you forever.”
Laurie Anderson’s “Heart of a Dog” opens with the identifiable twinkling cadences of her voice, a wonder-struck performative instrument that bears traces of her Glen Ellyn upbringing. She’s saying goodbye to someone she loved: her rat terrier Lolabelle. It’s a winsome, plainspoken, concrete, elusive wonder of an essay film about loss and grief. Lolabelle is the second lead, after the murmurs and venturing of her voice, but that’s not all. Someone named Lou is at the heart of it, even when his presence is only in our consciousness. “Heart of a Dog” invokes Buddhism and 9/11 and living in Manhattan afterwards and the modern surveillance state and many matters both earthbound and otherworldly, and it’s also a stream of consciousness that literally invokes water and rain and snow and bodies of water, writing atop writing, layerings of images, a palimpsest of inscribing atop inscriptions, as well as splendid sound, overlapping strands of music of polyphonic charm, as well as her voice, always her voice, insistent as ragged memory.
“It was supposed to be twenty minutes or so,” she tells me of its commission by the European Arte network. “They were really vague about it. They really didn’t care,” she says, quick to laugh. “A lot of people put their camera next to a candle, twenty minutes later it was done, along with—” She trails off into French-sounding gibberish.
“Regarder la lumière!” then? “Yes!” she says, laughing, dimpling. “And I love that kind of film! I was like, that’s inspiring! But I just went off the track pretty soon. It wasn’t too long before I thought, maybe it could just be short stories. I’m going to see how they affect each other. Then it became, ‘what is a story’? That’s basically what the film is about now.”
“Heart of a Dog” definitely has a feel of “once I was lost, now I am found,” it doesn’t feel like a film that could be planned, it would have to accrue and accrete and find other, complementary forms of storytelling. “You do, you do. It was, it was really organic. I also didn’t work on it consistently. I started and then stopped for almost a year, and only really finished it because an editor said, let me just keep cutting a bit, give me a few little ideas and I’ll cut like that. I was very uninvolved! It limped along for a while.”
“I am what is known as a ‘multimedia artist,’” Anderson wrote recently in the New Yorker of her approach (and distractions). “I chose that description because it doesn’t mean anything. Who isn’t multimedia these days? But it allows me to work in many different ways—music, writing, performance, film, electronics and painting—without provoking the art police, who love to tell artists to get back into their category.”
Visually, the film layers language, textures from painting, filtered drone footage, snow against trees. “The snow’s not layered,” she corrects me. “That’s just the backyard with snow. I never went more than three blocks from where I lived.” She pauses, then recalls, “Except for California… I wasn’t going to have a dog in those scenes, but then I was in a cafe, in San Francisco, Saturday morning. I decided to go to a monastery I knew to shoot some stuff just because I was there, and there’s a rat terrier, looked exactly like Lolabelle! And I said, wow! Y’know? This is a weird thing to ask, but I’m going across to the bay today, and do you think I could shoot your dog? ‘Oh, yeah, sure!’ Really? I was going to do that all day tomorrow, shooting, you wouldn’t be available would you? ‘Yeah!’ What state is this? You can find a lookalike, but not someone who’s got the whole weekend to just goof around in the mountains! Everything was like that, very, very organic. Shooting with stuff I could do myself, iPhones, [Canon] 5D. And some drone footage, too! I had a lot of drones, I was using them to do live concerts outside and to rush around musicians. There still aren’t any drone rules in New York, you can just fly a drone around and look in someone’s window and drive around in traffic. It’s ridiculous! Everything else is kind of curtailed, but no, just drive your drone around. I did use some of that footage, but I used the underside, there’s a camera underneath the drone, that’s very low-res and one in the front that’s higher-res. The one in front is really beautiful so I used some of that to represent phosphenes, the things you see when you close your eyes, those were just shadows of drones on a studio floor. Everything had huge amounts of filters on it. The snow scene didn’t, it’s funny you mentioned that one!”
And how late did the copious music thread its way in? “It almost didn’t. I was an artist in residence at Impact, which is in Troy, and I brought this film, didn’t have a score, just a voiceover, and even a temp voiceover. And people looked at it, and they all said the same thing! ‘I have one request: don’t put music on this! It’s so hardcore with just a voice!” Yeahhh… I thought, ‘I want to be Chris Marker, secretly, I really do. The music is so manipulative!’ Then the producer came out and he said, “Welllll…. You are a musician. Why don’t you just try?”
“Heart of a Dog” opens Friday, November 13 at the Music Box.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.