This article was originally published in the “Documentary Voices” section of the Nominations/SAG/Globes issue of TheWrap’s magazine.
Over the last five decades, few voices in music, art and performance have been quite as distinctive and rich as Laurie Anderson’s. The 68-year-old Illinois-born, New York-based artist has been an idiosyncratic and inspiring presence since the ’70s, with a brief touch of pop stardom when her single “O Superman” made it to No.2 in England in 1981, along with collaborations with the likes of William S. Burroughs, Spalding Gray, Brian Eno, Philip Glass and her late husband, Lou Reed.
She brought her distinctive storytelling voice to film this year with “Heart of a Dog,” a mixture of live-action, animation and home movies. The film is sort of about her dog, sort of about her childhood, sort of about America’s surveillance culture and mostly about Laurie Anderson’s musings on art, life, death, creation and lots of other things.
“I approached it like everything else I do,” she said. “You sit back and say, ‘Is it complex enough? Is it unbalanced enough? Is it beautiful enough?'”
“Heart of a Dog” is all three of those things, which makes it the most delightfully unconventional film on the Oscar doc shortlist. It grew out of a commission from the French TV network Arte, which airs a series of mostly low-budget, short essay films.
“They asked me to do one, and I thought it’d be a good chance to ask myself why I do things,” Anderson said. “And then I thought I needed a hook. Lassie, Rin Tin Tin — dog films are always great.”
But her piano-playing dog, Lolabelle, is only a small part of the film, which she said proceeded slowly over a period of years. “I think after Arte asked me to do it, they forgot,” she said. “Because they never checked on it. Being really casual doesn’t always work for me, but in this case it helped me a lot. It developed in a very, very organic way.”
She started, she said, the way she usually starts any kind of art project: “I always make a big diagram of how things could relate to each other, and then I try to really trust scramble mode. And I try to make very wide jump cuts early in what I’m doing.
“It’s a film about up, about sky, about writing and also about fear. It’s about very rapidly shifting points of view. You’re looking through a dog’s eyes, and then through the lens of a surveillance camera, and then you’re floating about in the bardo [the Buddhist soul’s transitional afterlife state] … That dislocation is very important.”
Like Anderson’s music and her stage performances, the result is elusive and meandering but potent, an utterly singular visual essay that can be wise, whimsical and at times unexpectedly touching. Anderson touches on events from her childhood, tugs at the heartstrings as she deals with the death of Lolabelle, ends the film with an elegiac song from her late husband, and even tosses in some of the last scenic footage she was able to take from her apartment in New York’s West Village.
“I used to have a great view of the Hudson River,” she said. “And then the Trump Tower came in next door, and I had to brick up my own windows. So harsh.” A shrug. “But it’s a good painting studio now. It’s got a big wall.”
She returns to musing about the experience of creating “Heart of a Dog.” “It’s really good when nobody cares what you’re doing, when nobody’s going, ‘How’s the film coming?’ Not to be pretentious, but that ultimately meant this was about freedom. Freedom to make the film the way that you see it.”
And when she finally finished, was “Heart of a Dog” what Arte had been looking for? “It was four times as long as they asked for, and two years late,” she said. “But otherwise, perfect.”