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Heart of a Dog

A poignant cinematic essay about an artist and her pet.
By Sarah Ward
October 24, 2016
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By Sarah Ward
October 24, 2016
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Cute creatures are never far from the silver screen, and neither are the loving bonds between pets and their people. From animated kids films to tear-jerking dramas, the connection between humans and animals is a movie staple — and yet, Heart of a Dog is unlike anything you've ever seen before. Thi personal, poetic and poignant cine-essay is a heartfelt love letter to a canine that made director Laurie Anderson's life brighter; an introspective yet expressive catalogue of her inner musings; and an examination of the mortality that stalks those with both two legs and four. It's also one of the ways that the artist and filmmaker tried to process her grief for not only the titular pooch, but for her husband Lou Reed, to whom the film is dedicated.

That's a wide and vast array of content swirling around in one package, but swirl it does. It ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, and bursts forward and then fades; seemingly shifting, switching and segueing whenever the mood strikes. Flitting between hand-drawn images, photographs, archival clips and even a canine's-eye view of the world, Heart of a Dog is as concerned with capturing and cultivating sensations and emotions as it is telling tales and exploring topics. Indeed, if ever there's been a movie equivalent of stepping inside someone's brain, then this is it.

A rat terrier named Lolabelle, lovingly captured in home videos before her death in 2011, provides the starting point for the intimate excursion into Anderson's thoughts, feelings, worries and wonderings — and when you see the pooch, you'll understand why. There's a sparkle in her eye, just as there's a lift in Anderson's voice whenever she shares her recollections of the critter that was more than just part of the family. But, memories are like branches: they each reach out in a different direction. Lolabelle inspires many a new subject as Anderson's mind keeps wandering.

In some moments, she dives deep into her childhood, including her relationship with her mother. In others, she ruminates upon the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the broader, existential matters that it conjures. And in yet others she lets viewers watch as Lolabelle plays tunes on an electronic keyboard. Whatever she's stumbling across or putting on the screen, Anderson offers honest slivers of her life that prove astonishingly universal, while simultaneously making the weighty seem both intimate and personal.

With all this in mind, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Heart of a Dog is something that you experience rather than simply view. In the process, gaining a thorough appreciation for both the artistry and just how hard Anderson and company worked to achieve it is all part of the package. It mightn't seem like it when you're roaming through her innermost thoughts and fears – in fact, the feature is so fluid that it appears rather effortless – but making a movie like this isn't easy to make. Nothing this earnest, resonant and revealing ever is.

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