If you asked me if I want to see some videos of your cute little dog doing some tricks, I would politely pass. This was the first thing I thought as I read the description on the back of the Bluray case of the Criterion Collection’s release of Heart of a Dog. But this experimental movie, which incorporates home movies and videos, staged scenes and meditative electronic music is by Laurie Anderson, and that changes the proposition.
Anderson is the same multimedia artist who was able to make the captain’s announcement on a plane or an answering machine message from your mother into profound and affective journeys on her classic 1981 album Big Science. Through the repetition of simple everyday phrases, seemingly lifted from mundane conversations set to found sound, synthesizers and violin, Anderson commented on modern anxiety, the nation and familial love on her debut album. In the liner notes to the Nonesuch 2007 reissue of Big Science, Anderson writes about living in New York during the ’70s and how she would often perform with a mix of music, electronics, film and stories in an art scene that actively disregarded traditional artform boundaries.
If you have ever seen Anderson perform live or in movies or videos, it’s easy to imagine her standing next to a screen with a violin behind a podium of electronics as she describes how she first met her rat terrier Lolabelle, and how her dog eventually learned to play music, as she does in the movie Heart of a Dog. Anderson has a soothing voice, which she uses to great effect to tell her meandering and amusing stories. She’s able to spin a tale that makes you smile, laugh even, then out of nowhere, several seemingly innocent points made earlier in the story come together to form a set of connected lines, and the story of her dog having a near run-in with a hawk becomes a story of the anxiety of New Yorkers after 9/11.
The experience is subtle and immersive, with Anderson using cellphone footage, animation, what looks like super 8 film, drone footage and HD digital video, superimposing and blending images into a moving collage. The moving images of children ice skating, trees against a blank sky, patterns of rain dripping down a window, Lolabelle running along the West Coast and empty New York streets are faded together with synthesized tones. While the narrative bounces around from Lolabelle’s journey with Anderson to the passing of Anderson’s mother, to the changes that occurred in the US and New York after 9/11, the movie maintains a hypnotic rhythm. The rhythm is engaging but not steady as the tempo of sound and image speed up as Anderson’s stories build to fruition, delivering clever moments of connection, then slow back down as she shifts topics, setting up the next wave of insight.
Anderson used this storytelling strategy on her 1981 single O Superman, which starts with a bewildered mother leaving a message on a telephone answering machine. The message the mom leaves, a funny example of an older generation trying to use the technology of the next, transforms into something more sinister as the song progresses and Anderson’s voice becomes more electronically processed. The recorded message prompts a response and as Anderson sings, her lyrics become less amusing, her voice multiplexed, and she ends the song with:
So hold me mom, in your long arms / Your petrochemical arms / Your military arms / In your electronic arms.
The mother becomes a machine, she becomes industry, the military, the communications infrastructure, she becomes the nation-state. The movement back and forth from amusing to worrisome, from whimsical to serious, from Anderson’s rat terrier Lolabelle learning to paint pictures to the establishment of the Intelligence Community Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative Data Center in Utah to collect our stories, occurs in Heart of a Dog, as well. The movie also deals with the death of Anderson’s mother and when you take her other work into account, we are here again with the nation as a mother, now a mother with many camera eyes, a mother who wants to listen in on us, a dying mother whom, it turns out, never loved us anyway.
The beautifully visualized journey that Anderson creates is nicely packaged by Criterion with extras such as an interview with Anderson conducted by coproducer Jake Perlin. In the interview, she mentions that she had completed the editing on the production before any music was created specifically for it and Perlin and Anderson agree that the movie works great with just visuals and Anderson’s wry storytelling. In the end, another producer convinced her that since she is a musician, she might want to try to compose a soundtrack and so she composed the music while watching the movie over and over. But if you want to experience the cut before the score, this Blu-ray allows you to turn off the music, one of the nice subtle extras courtesy of Criterion.
Then if you feel like you do need music and a lighter mood, there are also excerpts from Anderson’s 2016 concert for dogs, where she played music for dog owners and their dogs in the middle of Times Square. So, after seeing this beautiful presentation of Anderson’s dazzling and moving Heart of a Dog, I will backtrack on what I wrote before and say that if you are a media artist, then I will gladly watch your home movies of your dog doing cute tricks.