READ MORE: Laurie Anderson on Indiewire Influencers
Lou Reed was still alive when his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson, received a proposal from France.
The caller was Luciano Rigolini, a Swiss artist and producer from the French broadcast network ARTE. For years, Rigolini organized a program called “La Lucarne,” which commissioned “creative documentaries” from around the world.
“I want you to do something about your philosophy of life,” he said. Rigolini, who treasured memories of watching Anderson perform at the Chelsea studio The Kitchen in the mid-seventies, wanted her to develop a 20-minute sampling of her creative vision. Anderson, whose innovative electronic music anticipated the era of digital composition by decades, drew a blank. Still grieving the death of her faithful rat terrier Lolabelle, Anderson had a hard time focusing on any big concept. “I was really struggling,” she recalled. “Well,” Rigolini said when Anderson hesitated, “why don’t you do something about your dog?”
And with that, Anderson — who hadn’t directed a movie since her concert film “Home of the Brave” nearly three decades ago — embarked on a journey that would last several years, and include another devastating loss.
A Heavy Feat
The final result, a tender, ruminative personal essay film called “Heart of a Dog,” surpassed all expectations at the time. Premiering to widespread acclaim on the festival circuit this fall, “Heart of a Dog” opened to a warm reception in New York last weekend, arrives in Los Angeles on November 6 and will continue to expand across the country. An experimental riff on Anderson’s Buddhist worldview, the feature explores her complex relationship to her beloved canine, imagines her passage into the Tibetan purgatory known as the bardo, dabbles in Anderson’s reflections on the anxieties of post-9/11 New York and features touching memories from her childhood.
In spite of the sorrowful mood, “Heart of a Dog” builds a comedic streak around Lolabelle’s burgeoning music career, which occurs once Anderson trains the aging, blind canine to put her paws to a keyboard. Even here, however, Anderson seems to be pushing for profound ideas about the innocence of the creative act. It’s safe to say your average viral pet video doesn’t go this deep.
In short, Anderson stuffs a lot of material into 75 minutes. The limber running time is deceptive in light of its complex backstory and heavy content. “It was three years too late and four times too long,” the 68-year-old Anderson said in a recent conversation. A vibrant, smiling presence who speaks with the giddy energy of a much younger woman, she laughed. “Otherwise, it was just what they asked for.”
For Rigolini, however, the creative freedom baked into the project meant that “Heart of a Dog” could readily take on a life of its own. “I totally trusted her and the only expectation I had was to be surprised,” he said. “I was extremely pleased, even overwhelmed.”
As Anderson makes the rounds discussing her project (she traveled to Venice, Telluride and Toronto in early September before continuing to promote the movie back home), she has emphasized the degree to which the long-gestating project left her profoundly satisfied. “It’s part of my philosophy of life not to push things away,” she told Indiewire’s Dana Harris on the Influencers podcast. “Don’t sit there whining. Do something.”
Next: Life after Lou.
Life After Lou
To some degree, that note of defiance stems from circumstances that nearly prevented the movie from completion. One year into the production, Reed passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer. Anderson spent months caring for Reed and hesitated to return to her project. “Losing your partner is like losing half of yourself,” she said. “It’s pretty insane.”
She balked at the idea of turning “Heart of a Dog” into a blatant paean to her lost husband. “If I was going to tell the story of Lou’s life and death, it would be very different,” she said. “I don’t know if I would make a film out of it. Some things are just for yourself. You have that audience of one, just for you. There’s so much pressure to bring yourself to the world and show you know or what you discovered. You don’t have to do that.”
Instead, she started to think more about the liberating possibilities of overcoming her lonely state — the ethos she cites in the film, brought to her by a Buddhist instructor, of “feeling sad without being sad.” Rather than fitting into expectations of the downbeat widow many expected from her, she delivered a fresh, defiant statement. “Your personality is created and you think, ‘Wow, I better stay within the frames of that personality,'” she explained. “Then you’re trapped. This is a movie about trying to be free.”
After a few months, she decided she would rush to the finish line, only to find a therapeutic value to the filmmaking process. “A lot of this is a way to help conversations about it,” she said. Nevertheless, she has been coy about the elements of the movie that reflect her mourning of Reed, who surfaces in a few scenes as a doctor caring for the ailing Lolabelle but never comes up by name. “It’s not a self-help thing,” she told Harris. “It’s made for others to step into.”
But in a conversation with Philip Lopate conducted for the “Heart of a Dog” premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, she clarified. “Of course I’m talking about Lou,” she said. “I’m talking about my mother…I’m talking about — you and myself.”
A Handmade World
Yet there’s no doubting the personal dimension of “Heart of a Dog” that defines its every moment. Anderson wrote the richly melancholic score, crafted hand-drawn animation for various interludes and provides narration the whole way through. Her chatty musings careen through stories from her childhood — including tales of her role in nearly drowning her younger brothers and witnessing her mother’s last words on her deathbed. Anderson chronicles Lolabelle’s trip through the bardo with vibrant, nonsensical lyrics and satirically mocks the climate of paranoia sustained by the National Security Agency. Somehow, it all fits together as a bracing existential statement on poignant absurdities of being alive, and fearing death.
In that sense, “Heart of a Dog” unfolds as a mixed media experiment not unlike the blend of strange and wondrous ingredients at the center of her work for decades: Whether playing the violin while standing on slowly melting blocks of ice for “Duets on Ice” or blending spoken word poetry with animation and song for her sprawling “United States” album, Anderson has always excelled at fusing multiple aesthetic ingredients into a mesmerizing whole. Her famous composition “O Superman” remains potent for its use of hypnotic rhythms that feel somehow comforting and alien at once. “Heart of a Dog” follows suit.
“These are things that I would do in a show — stories, homages,” she said. “I just never thought to put them into a film before.” She compared the mashup of imagery and narration to an older model of storytelling. “In a funny way, it’s kind of like a radio play,” she said. “It leaves a lot to people’s imaginations.”
Still, fitting the disparate ingredients together into a unified narrative proved challenging for Anderson, who eventually found regular support from Dan Janvey, a founding member of the film collective Court 13. The young Oscar-nominated “Beasts of the Southern Wild” producer worked with Anderson to consolidate her numerous stories into a fluid experience. He also advised her on the movie’s ineffable qualities, including its score, suggesting she avoid her usual fixation on electronic beats in favor of strings. “I realized if you have a lot of beats, it just becomes a music video,” she said.
Instead, “Heart of a Dog” falls into a class of its own. “Laurie could care less about boundaries or definitions of what it means to be an artist,” Janvey said. “Her work breaks boundaries between mediums and defies easy categorization.”
An Unexpected Finale
Anderson took her time finalizing the elegant score. In February of this year, she participated in an artists’ residency hosted by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva, Florida, where she focused on playing her violin in a mini-studio. In the ensuing months, “Heart of a Dog” endured a series of edits, at which point it was deemed worthy of a life beyond the ARTE broadcast. “I saw it developing and growing exponentially and transcendentally,” recalled Rigolini.
While working on the sound mix, Janvey said during a recent Q&A, “there was a moment where the movie finally said to us, ‘OK, this what I’m meant to be for now.'”
Over the summer, as it geared up for the festival circuit, “Heart of a Dog” screened for U.S. buyers. One of them was Richard Abramowitz, the pioneering DIY distribution maven who previously worked with Anderson on “Home of the Brave” for its 1986 release. He recalled being transported by “Heart of a Dog,” which had already locked in a broadcast deal with HBO but had yet to find a theatrical home.
“It was one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen,” Abramowitz said. More than that, he knew it had potential to play for a wide variety of viewers. “There’s a substantial audience for this film,” he added. As examples, he cited, “cinephiles, the mind/body/spirit crowd, artists of every stripe, dog lovers, music lovers, poetry lovers, the growing storytelling community, and — given the film’s excellence and transcendence — friends of the above through powerful word of mouth.”
So far, Abramowitz’s premonition has been confirmed by a series of sold out shows following the Film Forum opening, where it pulled it over $13,000 on one screen in three days. He hopes to keep pushing the film out to more theaters around the country through March, while early stirrings of an awards campaign have already borne fruit — last week, the film was nominated for best documentary at the upcoming Gotham Awards. “The film plays so well and word of mouth is so strong that we’re going to massage it along its way,” he said.
For Anderson, however, the bottom line has less to do with box office or accolades than the immediacy of her accomplishment. “Laurie is a true storyteller,” said Janvey. “At the heart of her work is this desire to tell stories.” For decades, she has worked at the epicenter of an artistic community invested in exploring new arenas of creativity. “Heart of a Dog” represented one more step in that process. “Anyone can make a movie today,” she said. “I’m living proof of that.”
Party at Laurie’s Place
Of course, Anderson is far from just anyone. Last Friday, following a packed screening of “Heart of a Dog,” the filmmaker joined Janvey onstage for a vibrant Q&A in which viewers picked apart the movie from numerous angles. Anderson gave out a copy of the film’s soundtrack to the audience member seated in the chair adorned with a plaque bearing Lolabelle’s name — the result of a donation to the theater that she and Reed gave years ago. The free-ranging conversation that ensued included an anecdote about Anderson’s one-time residency at NASA, and a conversation with Lolabelle former trainer about the art of composing music with animals (including mosquitoes).
Afterward, Anderson hosted a cozy soiree at her two-floor Tribeca apartment, where she and Reed spent the last years of their lives together. Each well-lit room was adorned with images of her late husband: There was Reed next to the staircase, meeting Bill Clinton; in the living room, he peered out of a shadowy framed shot adjacent to the golden rock ’n’ roll hall of fame trophy he was posthumously awarded this year.
In a high-ceilinged den that looked out on the Hudson River and the New Jersey skyline, a smattering of New York artists — including several Oscar voters — hobnobbed over wine and snacks. Anderson plugged her laptop into the stereo and put on “Set the Twilight Reeling,” Reed’s 1996 solo album. Just as his phantom-like presence hovers over “Heart of a Dog,” his voice filled the room. A large canvas drawing of Lolabelle, one of several that Anderson showcases in the film, beamed down on the crowd from the wall. The party became a three-dimensional model of the world from which “Heart of a Dog” hailed — and the highbrow scene relished its surroundings.
Richard Gere held court in the kitchen while a frumpy-looking Philip Glass fiddled with one of the many large swords carefully set up throughout Anderson’s home. The crowd was buzzy with excitement over Anderson’s achievement. “It’s not a diary film. It’s something else,” beamed one prominent New York filmmaker.
Another one, Alan Berliner, milled about near the food table. The director of intimate cinematic memoirs such as “First Cousin Once Removed” and “Nobody’s Business,” Berliner’s blend of visual reference points and voiceover narration is a blatant influence on “Heart of a Dog,” and he receives an acknowledgement in the movie’s credits. He would not see the final cut of the film until the following day, but later shared some thoughts by email filled with paragraphs of effusive praise.
Berliner said that Anderson “succeeds in taking the personal essay film to all sorts of new and exciting places.” More than that, he added, it “stimulates the viewer to connect the brushstrokes of its diverse universe of ideas and thoughts into a triumphantly daring abstract cinematic canvas…Somehow, you walk out of the theater floating in a state of grace, having been touched by an operatic-scale wind-storm of thought, passion, and intensity. It’s really quite something.”
Anderson shrugs off such euphoric reactions. At her party, she could be found lurking in the hallways, talking quietly with her guests while seemingly lost in her own world. Her disarming presence echoed one observation she made in an earlier conversation. “I’m not really a filmmaker,” she said with a chuckle, almost speaking in a whisper. “But keep that on the down low.”