Telluride 2015 Review: ‘Heart of a Dog’ is Doggone Deep

I knew I was in for something different when Heart of a Dog was described as an “essay poem” in the Telluride Film Festival program. There are poems and there are films, but when you combine them you’re asking the viewer to challenge the paradigms of art they’re used to. I’m not familiar with Laurie Anderson’s performance art, but I’m always looking for a new take on cinema, and I like animals, so here goes. 

Heart of a Dog is kind of a like a student film you may see in film school incorporating trims from the editing bins to fill in gaps in footage or just to be experimental. But damned if it isn’t the best damn bin film I’ve ever seen. Beginning as Anderson’s homage to her dog Lolabelle, she manages to eventually touch on post 9/11 data surveillance and it actually makes sense. 

Degraded footage gives a lot of the montages the feel of home movies, even though some of them illustrate events that no one could have been filming. Some are more obviously re-enactments but they go down a little bit easier because this is not a documentary. They’re supposed to be surreal. Text on the screen goes by too fast to catch everything, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t complete sentences anyway. 

The lynchpin is Anderson’s narration. You could probably just listen to the soundtrack and get something out of her speech. It’s not stream of consciousness. “Essay” is correct because she has a thesis and supports it to unexpected ends. Plus, her voice is so soothing, she sounds pleasant even if you disagree with her points. 

So our introduction to the bond Anderson had with Lolabelle is her recollection of a dream in which she actually had the dog sewn into her stomach so she could give birth to her. That’s interesting, whether you take it as a manifestation of subconscious or a crazy obsessive attachment. Lolabelle comes from the same breed that Homeland Security trains, and so begins a foray into the NSA’s data center in Utah, which Anderson compares to the pharaohs storing information in the pyramids. That actually makes sense. We’re not the first society to keep tabs on our masses.

There is some lighthearted stuff too: Anderson shares paw sculptures she helped Lolabelle make, and video of Lolabelle playing the keyboard. Take that, Keyboard Cat. 

She shares stories of her own childhood, the practices of other cultures in dealing with death and loss, and shout outs to artist Gordon Matta-Clark, whose trademark work involved cutting a full sized house in half. 

There are parts that will be hard for animal lovers to watch. We see a number of sick animals, not just Lolabelle, and you may have a strong objection to how Anderson handled Lolabelle’s final days. She may have kept Lolabelle alive too long, rejecting the common veterinarian advice for the sake of a “natural” death. And then there’s a section on SIDS, but I don’t think it was brought up just to shock or depress people. It ties in with the dreams from the beginning of the film, although like the sick animal footage, you may want to be warned it’s coming.

As disparate as many of the above subjects seem, at least they’re all interesting. Anderson keeps the subject matter compelling, sometimes provocative, sometimes indulgent, but never pretentious. Heart of a Dog will be distributed by HBO so it will likely appear on their network at some point. In that setting there will be no commitment. You can stick with it as much or as little as you want. I suspect that at any point you might be ready to give up, Anderson will take a 90 degree turn into territory that will keep you watching a little longer.

Image via Canal Street Communications

Fred Topel is a veteran journalist since 1999 and has written for CraveOnline since 2006. See Fred on the ground at Sundance, SXSW, Telluride or in Los Angeles and follow him on Twitter @FredTopel, Instagram @Ftopel.