Conventional wisdom says filmmaking is a young person’s game. And while it’s true that most directors do their best work before they turn 50, there are always exceptions. Heart of a Dog, one of the year’s boldest films, is one of the best. The documentary by 68-year-old first-time filmmaker Laurie Anderson is a singular and occasionally stunning work of personal art. It’s a mesmerizing melange of story elements that cohere only through the combination of Anderson’s uncompromising cinematic vision and the wisdom of her years.
Describing those elements won’t do the film justice, but let’s try anyway. Put most simply, it’s an avant-garde meditation on life and death brought on by the loss of Anderson’s rat terrier, Archie. Like many New Yorkers, Anderson has a special relationship with her dog. Some viewers will snicker at the luxuries afforded him; Archie had a permanent trainer, and as he slowly went blind in old age, the old boy was taught to play piano in order to stimulate his hearing. Raw footage of his performances reveals that, while he wasn’t a naturally gifted pianist, Archie at least knew how to work a crowd.
But their relationship transcended the stereotypes. After the consecutive deaths of her partner and her mother, Archie became Anderson’s primary companion. In an early scene, she describes a bizarre dream in which she surgically implants him in her womb so she can give birth to him, thus making the depth of their bond literal. The sequence is animated in an intentionally crude, messy style, with Anderson’s confident, lilting voice inviting you to enter her dream world without judgment.
It’s a remarkable feat. A vision as personal and insular as this often inspires a split reaction. Oddly, the film it recalls most closely is Magnolia, another bold treatise on grief, and one which received both raves and pans. But here the purity of Anderson’s intent doesn’t allow for such scoffing, even from hardened cynics. Consider how she miraculously gets away with comparing the loss of her dog to the tragedy on 9/11. Anderson describes the look on her dog’s face when a hawk swooped down in an aborted attack—his terrifying realization that “the enemy can come from above”—as similar to the common expression of millions of New Yorkers after the terror attacks. Comparing a personal loss to a national tragedy is risky business, but the dreamy, narrative structure makes it work. Once you surrender to her stream of consciousness, there’s nowhere you won’t follow.
That’s not to say, however, that Heart of a Dog is easy to love. There is much to appreciate about the film—it poses a challenge for the viewer in a good way—but it also remains a mystery to the end. You can accept its dream logic and eclectic visual style, but it rarely offers space for the viewer to actually relate. Anderson’s willingness to experiment with the color and clarity of the frame, for example, is often captivating, but it doesn’t make the film any more accessible.
Then again, some its opacity stems from its uniqueness, and our inability to describe it adequately. Maybe reviewing Heart of a Dog is like trying to describe color to a blind person. Words don’t do it justice. You just have to see it for yourself.
Heart of a Dog opens Friday at Landmark Bethesda.