In some ways, one could regard Laurie Anderson as the quiet innovator. Over the past three decades, she has built up a compelling, if fitful, discography of spoken word and experimental music albums; invented a handful of musical instruments; conceived of and performed several one-woman shows; and collaborated with a murderer’s row of East Village creatives, including Spalding Gray, William S. Burroughs, Peter Gabriel, and Adrian Belew. While her forward-thinking body of work earned her a place in Loves Goes to Buildings on Fire—the definitive text on the 1970s New York music scene—she is best known to the general public for her most private role: that of Lou Reed’s widow. Her second feature-length documentary, HEART OF A DOG, touches upon her brush with mortality—mostly through the waning years of her beloved terrier, Lolabelle.
Anderson made her directorial debut in HOME OF THE BRAVE, a documentary that depicted a Union City, NJ concert to support her album Mister Heartbreak. Released two years after STOP MAKING SENSE, the film shares some common technical ground with the Talking Heads’ tour de force, such as her use of rear-screen photo and video projections and a dance sequence (also featuring William S. Burroughs), HOME OF THE BRAVE pushes Byrne and Demme’s approach to its logical extreme. Anderson interacts with her onscreen projections, recalling the opening scene from STOP MAKING SENSE; she frequently addresses the audience directly with aphorisms, poetry, and fake newscasts; and her use of vocal manipulation suggests the abstractions of Byrne’s “big suit” from the end of his film. In a review of HOME OF THE BRAVE, Roger Ebert described her performance as “stimulating and joyful”, observing that “Anderson is saying: We’re surrounded by bankrupt images and music that is fascist noise, and they’re pounding away at us, trying to break us down, to kill the spark, but if we keep two things we will be able to survive. Those two things are a sense of wonder and the ability to laugh back.”
While HOME OF THE BRAVE was a critical success, it failed to connect at the box office. However, the film led Anderson to some unique small-screen opportunities. “What Do You Mean ‘We’?”, a half-hour narrative short, allowed Anderson to further explore the burdens of technology and cloning. Viewed now, the multiple exposures and analog video suggest 80s PBS gone self-aware and gender-bent, but Anderson’s wit and humanity shine through the technical limitations. Anderson’s multimedia experiments also led her to host the second season of Alive from Off-Center, a Night Flights-meets-Utne Reader showcase of short film and video.
As technology began to catch up with Anderson’s interests and abilities, she created a CD-ROM, Puppet Motel, that was released in 1995. She chose to spend the balance of the millennium working on live theatre, such as her one-woman show Moby-Dick, as well as collaborations with her peers and her innovations on musical instruments. (“Hang On To Your Emotions” is a high point of Lou Reed’s Set the Twilight Reeling, due in no small part to her tape-bow violin accompaniment.)
One gets the impression that Anderson would only return to filmmaking if there was something she could do in that medium and none other. Since depicting her dog’s life and death would have been challenging in a stage show or an album, directing and compiling a film made the most logistical sense. HEART OF A DOG has a more handmade feel than Home of the Brave, though its impressionistic narrative shares some DNA with Anderson’s live shows of the era.
In depicting Lolabelle’s final years, HEART OF A DOG allows Anderson to explore other subjects, such as the changes in Manhattan after 9/11, the pros and cons of different dog breeds, and ties to her family. While much of the material could seem heavy in another artist’s hands, but Anderson’s unsentimental eye and playful, deft touch give this film a poignant and witty quality. (One meditation on mortality is touched off by showing the blind Lolabelle’s many tricks, among them playing the piano and fingerpainting.)
Much to the disappointment of classic rock fans everywhere, Lou Reed figures into HEART OF A DOG only peripherally—he makes a cameo appearance in the film, and one of his songs plays over the closing credits. This is a feature, not a bug. Anderson had an impressive body of work before she clapped eyes on the iconic rocker. While their collaborations on his late-career albums were among the highlights, Laurie’s idiosyncratic vision deserves to stand on its own, and she is more than just a muse for the founder of the Velvet Underground.
The grainy digital video that comprises HEART OF A DOG might not be of the greatest quality, and with the film premiering on HBO soon, many might want to wait to see it at home. However, the understated, powerful themes of the film would benefit from the communal experience that a theatre like the Brattle could provide. Bring tissues, and be prepared for the lively conversation this film will inspire.