'Heart of a Dog': Telluride Review

Venice Film Festival
It was good to be Laurie Anderson’s dog.

An impressionistic meditation on death and its prelude by a thoughtful, free-ranging, highly idiosyncratic artist who enjoyed a very deep relationship with her dog.

Heart of a Dog is an impressionistic meditation on death and its prelude by a thoughtful, free-ranging, highly idiosyncratic artist who enjoyed a very deep relationship with her dog. Laurie Anderson’s return to feature-length filmmaking for the first time since Home of the Brave in 1986 has the effect of watching a thrown stone bouncing many times along the surface of the water; its frequent insights and clever creative formulations are often pleasing to behold, but they’re all glancing and quickly replaced by something another. Set for limited theatrical release next month after a run of major festivals and due for HBO airings in 2016, this short feature will mainly appeal to longtime fans of the multitalented musician-filmmaker.

The connections Anderson makes between her beloved late rat terrier Lolabelle, who from all the evidence was quite a gifted and lovable character, and such diverse but, in the writer-director’s lively mind, related topics as 9/11, art-making, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, means of perception and the works of Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard, come off as both loopy and charming, if also ephemeral. Very little sticks here, other than the final stretch: Set to very slowed-down visuals, she tells a story about her having, as a child, rescued two younger brothers when they fell into an icy lake in their stroller. When Lou Reed’s resonant “Turning Time Around” comes on the soundtrack, it becomes clear that telling the story of her cherished dog has been a way of mourning and celebrating her late husband, as well as, perhaps, her mother.

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The rest consists of flights of fancy, musings, passing thoughts, clever turns of phrase, ideas tossed off, her attention landing in sometimes interesting places but rarely staying in any one place for long. The same goes for the eclectic visuals, many of which feature Lolabelle, a very lucky dog in the big scheme of things, one Anderson claims could recognize 500 words, had a French accent, and saw in shades of blue and green until she went blind. The pair’s hiking trip in Northern California is vividly evoked, as is Anderson’s dream of having given birth to a dog.

The artist’s enduring fans may attach great importance to all this and will at least get a good kick out of it. To others it will seem more like reasonably coherent, undeniably talented doodling with a lightly stressed serious intent. In other words, viewers with an investment in Anderson will want to plumb its depths for buried treasure, while tourists will smile and move on.

From a sensory point of view, the film is a pleasure, the images having been manipulated in various ways to evocative effect, Anderson’s voiceovers proving more amusing than not, and the music taking mostly lively turns. But most of all, you leave feeling that Lolabelle was very lucky in her choice of owner.

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Venue: Telluride Film Festival (also in Venice, Toronto, San Sebastian, New York film festivals)
Production: Canal Street Communications
Director: Laurie Anderson
Writer: Laurie Anderson
Producers: Dan Jarvey, Laurie Anderson
Directors of photography: Laurie Anderson, Toshiaki Ozawa, Joshua Zucker Pluda
Editors: Melody London, Katherine Nolfi
Music: Laurie Anderson

No rating, 75 minutes