Calling Heart of a Dog one of the most ambitious movies you're ever likely to see about losing a pet is an understatement. It also belies how much else is at work here. Artist Laurie Anderson's idiosyncratic documentary about the death of her beloved Lolabelle invokes everything from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to David Foster Wallace ("Every love story is a ghost story"). This is cinematic free association, with one tangent leading to another and another until you've forgotten the original thread.
If that sounds frustrating, fret not. The far-flung connections rarely feel unfounded. A comparison between NSA archives and ancient Egyptian pyramids becomes more convincing the longer Anderson waxes philosophical. On paper it may sound absurd, but once she describes them both as off-limits structures in the desert, it's difficult not to nod your head and go along with it. (One subject that doesn't get directly broached, however, is the filmmaker's deceased husband, Lou Reed — sorry, Velvet Underground fans.)
At times this can be like getting cornered by that relative at your Christmas party, the one who's well-meaning and philosophical but a little too out there for you. At other points, it's more akin to being invited for coffee by a favorite professor who's even more interesting outside the classroom than she is when lecturing. Even those who initially resist getting on Heart of a Dog's abstract wavelength will be surprised at how moving the 75-minute essay film is.
That's thanks in large part to how aesthetically engaging it can be. Anderson isn't merely ranting into the stock-footage ether; she's matching her lyrical musings to home videos of her erstwhile pet, ruminative intertitles, and a striking animated opening sequence. Heart of a Dog is more overtly cinematic than your average talking-head doc, its digressions as visual as they are verbal.
At the center of this mental maelstrom is, of course, Lolabelle, the rat terrier who departed this mortal coil some years ago. She was very much the dog-as-child, the kind of adored pet whose loss the owner (or, indeed, parent) never truly gets over. The filmmaker, who narrates in a Siri-esque monotone throughout but never appears in corporeal form, shows how insightful she can make this highly personal material quite early on. She compares a hike in which Lolabelle was targeted by birds of prey to 9/11, which had recently taken place: the realization that an unseen enemy can appear out of the sky and that, once you cross such a mental threshold, you can never return to the blissful ignorance preceding it. Hawks will always be lying in wait, ready to swoop down on small creatures with outstretched talons at a moment's notice.
Doubtless she's anthropomorphizing the pooch a bit, projecting insights and feelings onto Lolabelle that the canine probably never actually experienced. It's a sin few loving pet-owners can claim to be entirely innocent of — who hasn't wondered what their cat or dog might be thinking and, absent a concrete answer, made up an explanation for themselves?
Heart of a Dog is in many ways reminiscent of No Home Movie, the last work Chantal Akerman completed before her untimely death (apparently at her own hands) last month. In both we see the ways in which artists turn to the camera as a means of mediating and coming to terms with tremendous grief. It's as though, without their chosen tool in their hands, they simply can't understand this awful thing that's happened to them.
No doubt the act of creating can be therapeutic, but the vulnerability Anderson displays is wrenching. She eventually turns to the same subject Akerman spends all of No Home Movie documenting — namely, the illness and subsequent death of her mother. The fact that she can't speak about it as eloquently (or for as long) as she can about Lolabelle's passing is its own kind of sadness. We don't all have the same vocabulary for these things, but Heart of a Dog reminds us that we all feel them sooner or later.
HEART OF A DOG
Directed by Laurie Anderson
Uptown Theatre, opens Friday