In the wake of the digital revolution, which (whatever its faults) has allowed ever more specific film genres and sub-genres to find audiences, the distribution and exhibition of experimental cinema seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. Where is the platform for work being done by video artists and contemporary avant-garde filmmakers? Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is a rare example of an experimental film that actually got a theatrical run, however limited it may have been. Anderson, primarily known as a musician and composer of electronic music, has constructed a beautiful and hypnotic collage film out of memories and observations about everything from her mother’s dying words and post-9/11 New York to Buddhism and surveillance culture. Though Heart of a Dog meanders freely, weaving together the past and the present, reality and fantasy, it takes as its primary focus the life and death of Anderson’s beloved rat terrier Lolabelle. It is in meditating on Lolabelle that Anderson conveys a series of related ideas about love and grief, heavily influenced by the teachings of Buddhist monks and ideas found in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. (The film originated as a project commissioned for German television in which Anderson was to present her life philosophy.) As Anderson narrates images of Lolabelle, her childhood, and her life in New York City, we are lulled by the dulcet tones of her voice into a state of meditative reflection.
Heart of a Dog was no doubt granted a theatrical release because its subject matter—the filmmaker’s relationship to her pet—feels “relatable” and therefore marketable. That Anderson was married to Lou Reed, and that Reed himself recently died, also helps to broaden the film’s topicality and appeal. In spite of this, Heart of a Dog is unabashedly experimental. Anderson’s editing of printed text, sound, and image is easy to get lost in—watching much of it feels like being lapped by waves or sinking into water, an experience akin to that of watching the films of Andrei Tarkovsky—but it does not offer up familiar cinematic pleasure, nor does it rely on accepted wisdom about its subjects. It should hardly be mistaken for a piece of sentimental navel-gazing; it is a challenging and serious work, and unsuspecting audiences will no doubt come away disappointed and confused. (“What was the point of that?” I overheard a disgruntled middle-aged couple exclaim on their way out of the theater.) Even as Heart of a Dog is certain to frustrate viewers used to more mainstream documentary forms, it’s encouraging to know that places are being made for such films in the world, and that such films can find an audience, however small, to appreciate them. Seeing this film earlier in the week to an almost-full house at Cambridge’s Brattle Theater, I felt hopeful, heartened about the state of cinema in 2016. Or maybe that was just the Buddhism talking.