Blu-Ray Review – Heart of a Dog
Heart of a Dog
The great thing about the Criterion Collection is that every new entry has a chance to be seen by those who may not have the opportunity to via other avenues. Getting that spine number makes a title an immediate must have for hardcore collectors while drawing the curiosity of many others. I hadn’t heard of Heart of a Dog (2015, Spine 846) until I was assigned to review the blu-ray release. I mean that as a compliment to both the film and to Criterion – because of their collaboration this is now available for all to see and experience.
Musician, performance artist, writer, director – Laurie Anderson has so many talents that trying to label what lane she operates in would be an act of futility. In Heart of a Dog, she takes the role of “guide,” leading us through a story that doesn’t follow a conventional structure. To say that this is a “documentary” is flimsy at best. It is, however, very personal. Anderson combines various sources (animation, home videos, handheld footage, etc.) to remember her beloved rat terrier, Lolabelle. These images are stitched together seemingly arbitrarily, with Anderson’s voiceover acting as a constant through line.
Anderson had a profoundly deep relationship with Lolabelle – the opening scene (drawn by Anderson) depicts a dreamlike scenario where Anderson actually gives birth to her canine companion. But to say that this only about a human’s love for their dog is still not quite accurate. Anderson uses this premise to open up her focus to a wide range of different topics. These include but are not limited to: 9/11 and the increasing paranoia of government surveillance, the teachings of Buddhism, the wonders of life and the fear and acceptance of death. These threads circle one another without ever clashing, Anderson remarkably makes everything fit together in a kind of tranquil, meditative state.
Let’s be honest: this avant-garde, almost experimental approach won’t fit everybody’s taste. The different techniques Anderson incorporates will test those who are not into art house cinema. During certain sequences, she will flash text on screen so quickly that the words become unreadable. She’ll layer stock footage of people or landscapes behind raindrops trickling down the screen for us to decipher. Some might even let out a groan as Anderson includes passages of Lolabelle pushing her paws on a keyboard as though she were playing a song. But through all this, I did find myself vastly intrigued with what Anderson was doing. It’s clear that she has a certain organization with the imagery and how we move from one area to the next. There wasn’t a point where it felt as though she was throwing random visuals on screen just for the hell of it. She’s tells her story from the heart, and because of that the work rises above any pretension.
In a project where the image is intentionally distorted, reviewing the video quality is near impossible. The majority of the footage came from a Canon 5D Mark II, but additional shots came from an iPhone, a GoPro HERO3 Silver Edition, and a Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. This also doesn’t include all the home video footage Anderson puts in. Certain sequences contain scratches and marks that are obviously intentional. Some scenes are crystal clear while others are very blurry and disjointed. The most that I can say is that any imperfections in the video – I will assume – was done on purpose by the filmmaker. They exist to draw out a reaction, and what that reaction might be is different from person to person.
The same can be said about the audio quality. The insert tells us that the blu-ray has a fully digital soundtrack. The 5.1 surround sound was mastered from the original digital audio master files. Once again, it’s hard to distinguish the differentiation in sound being the result of the transfer on to blu-ray or if it was from Anderson’s discretion. However, one constant bit is her narration, which comes through with smooth clarity, as though she was in the room talking to us.
Unfortunately, this release comes with a limited amount of supplemental material. On the disc, the main highlight is the conversation between Anderson and coproducer Jake Perlin, in which Anderson describes her method of impressionistic and atmospheric art both on the stage and on screen, and how that helps her push the limits of perception and story. It’s an insightful talk, and Anderson’s warm, approachable persona makes listening to her a treat. The rest of the bonus features don’t delve in quite as deeply. We get two deleted scenes and a trailer, which is nice. Concert For Dogs is exactly what the title suggests – featuring Anderson playing the violin in Times Square in the presence dogs and their owners. It’s fun, but only lasts about six minutes. We also get Lolabelle’s “Video Christmas Card,” which is an extended version of Lolabelle playing piano. If you loved that sequence during the movie, then you’ll love this longer version. If you didn’t, well, this won’t win you over. There’s also a small booklet inside of the blu-ray case that shows some of the different images we get from the film, take that for what you will.
Other than the conversation between Anderson and Perlin, the real highlight of the bonus features is in the written essay by Glenn Kenny (included in the insert). It starts out as a basic appreciation, but gets very personal as Kenny makes a turn and describes the events of his own mother’s passing, relating it to the connection Anderson had with Lolabelle. It’s a revealing and powerful moment; Kenny’s honesty and willingness to share such a vulnerable piece of himself took me off guard. That goes to show how cinema can affect audiences in different ways. Where some might be turned off by Anderson’s style others will find pathos and catharsis.
For me, Heart of a Dog remains a mystery. I was fascinated with what Anderson was doing, but I always felt like I was kept at a distance. The minimal special features don’t provide much in the way of answers, and maybe that’s for the best. Sometimes life is too complicated for simple solutions. For those that like veering away from the norm every once and awhile, this might be the place for you. Check it out and see for yourself.