Thursday, November 19, 2015

Heart of a Dog














HEART OF A DOG                A-            
USA  (75 mi)  2015 d:  Laurie Anderson  

I walk accompanied by ghosts.
I walk accompanied by ghosts.

My father with his diamond eyes
His voice life size.
He says follow me. Follow me.

And I come sliding where I've been hiding
Out of the heart of a child.

Meet me by the lake. Meet me by the lake.
I'll be there. I'll be there.

If only I had the time. To tell you how I climbed
Out of the darkness. Out of my mind.
And I come sliding where I've been hiding

Out of the heart of a child.

Sunrise comes across the mountains.
Sunrise comes across the day.
Sunsets sit across the lakeside.
Sunsets across the Pyrenees.

Out of the heart of a child.
Out of the heart of a child.
Out of the heart of a child.

Meet me by the lake. Meet me by the lake.
I walk accompanied by ghosts.

The Lake, by Laurie Anderson, The Lake - YouTube (5:39), 2010

Laurie Anderson covers a lot of territory in this personal meditation on life and death, initially commissioned by Swiss Arte TV as a “philosophy of life” project, beautifully exploring the process of grief through intimate experiences that she shares.  And while initially conceived as a short film eulogy in memory of her beloved rat terrier dog Lolabelle, who died in 2011, this is essentially a poetic visual essay expanded to include the death of her mother, fellow artist Gordon Matta-Clark, and husband Lou Reed who also died while she was making the film, who is never mentioned, and only seen in a fleeting shot near the end, where their constant presence has a way of turning this into a story inhabited by ghosts that provides continuous illumination into our existing world, citing David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King that suggests “Every love story is a ghost story,” becoming a feature-length film delivered several years late and at four times the length that it was originally supposed to be.  What’s distinctive about this effort is the often inventive and amusing way Anderson chooses to do this, where it is as much about the art of storytelling and the joy of living.  Unlike other attempts on similar themes, like Gaspar Noé’s ENTER THE VOID (2009), this material isn’t bogged down by conventions or form, but remains elevated throughout by an artist’s often euphoric sensibility, where the director conjures up the spirit of film essayist Chris Marker or Agnès Varda with her own Midwestern sounding narration that quite honestly recalls the voice of Gena Rowlands, who was born in Madison, Wisconsin.  (Interestingly, Rowlands is her mother’s maiden name.)  An honest, autobiographical appraisal of her own life, one of the guiding inspirations of the film is attributed to a quote from Søren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 

While only 75-minutes long, it’s an extremely dense and impactive experience filled with childhood memories, video diaries, reflections on the post 9/11 surveillance culture, and reincarnation, sprinkled throughout by quotes from Anderson’s personal Zen Buddhist teacher Mingyur Rinpoche and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, along with tributes to various artists who have inspired her.  Anderson grew up in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, attending Glenbard West High School, majoring in art history at Barnard College while earning her master’s in sculpture from Columbia University, becoming a composer and musician, mostly playing violin and keyboards, and once worked as an art critic for Artforum magazine (also McDonald’s and on an Amish farm) before embarking on a career in the 60’s as an avant-garde performance artist, quickly finding her place in the experimental art scene of SoHo in the 1970’s, becoming a pioneer in electronic music.  Composing the musical soundtracks to Jonathan Demme’s SOMETHING WILD (1986) and Spalding Gray films SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA (1987) and MONSTER IN A BOX (1992), while also adding additional music to BEFORE NIGHT FALLS (2000), Anderson has only directed one other feature-length movie, HOME OF THE BRAVE (1986), a filmed performance of one of her musical tours.  While her audio/visual work has appeared in major museums in America and Europe, where she is considered a groundbreaking leader in the use of technology in the arts, she has released a half dozen albums and also written six books.  In 2002, in something of an oddity, she was announced as NASA’s first artist in residence, out of which developed a solo performance entitled “The End of the Moon,” Laurie Anderson - The end of the moon ... - YouTube (8:31), that toured internationally through 2006, which suggests Anderson’s art reaches for the mysteries of the cosmos.     

Except for a trip to California, all of this film was shot within a few blocks of Anderson’s artist and musician’s studio in southern SoHo on the far western reaches of Canal Street overlooking the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan, bleak building facades and empty streets as seen through surveillance footage after the 9/11 attack, while today there are Trump Tower skyscrapers on each side of her low-lying building with plenty of trees nearby.  The film opens with a dream about giving birth to a dog, where the bond between them is profoundly intimate, displaying an almost maternalistic attachment, beautifully expressed by Anderson’s own monochrome ink drawings, followed shortly thereafter by the death of her mother, where she remembers in great detail her last words, as she was literally saying goodbye to animals that she imagined seeing on the ceiling, which may as well have been her eight children huddled by the side of her hospital bed.  According to Anderson, her mother, on some level, was trying to give a speech, like going up to a microphone and saying “Thank you, all of you, thanks for coming.”  One of the most extraordinary revelations is the acknowledgment how difficult this was for Anderson, as she never loved her mother, so she wasn’t sure what to say in the final moments.  But she didn’t have to worry about it, as her mother spoke for everyone in the room, literally creating a new language to fit the occasion.  Similarly, in order to prepare her for this moment, her Buddhist teacher Rinpoche suggested she try to think of a moment when she was truly loved by her mother, and isolate that moment, becoming a memory frozen in time that will live forever. 

Lolabelle is the featured character, returned to throughout the film, as Anderson took her everywhere, and can be seen in a 2003 Charlie Rose interview with the artist and her husband, Laurie Anderson & Lou Reed Interviewed by Charlie Rose ... Pt. 1 YouTube (13:40).  Leading a remarkable life, recounting how her pet mastered the ability to feel empathy, a unique quality that many humans lack, unfortunately, while Anderson has also taught her various skills, like how to finger-paint with her paws, make sculptures with the help of a trainer, or play the electric piano.  Not only could she play piano on cue in front of a camera, but Anderson brought her to various public fundraisers where she amazingly performed in front of large audiences, developing a kind of free-form, Thelonious Monk style of percussive riffs.  When her pet started going blind not long before her death, she decided to move her to a more comfortable environment,  Green Gulch | San Francisco Zen Center, a Buddhist retreat located near Muir Beach hugging the shoreline 16 miles north of San Francisco, where it was Anderson’s idea to test Lolabelle’s ability to comprehend as many as 50 vocabulary words.  While walking her along the beach every day, often extended to all day events, Anderson describes herself as a “sky-worshipper,” where looking to the vastness of the sky tends to have a calming influence, but on this occasion she discovered a circling hawk that dive-bombed her dog, turning away at the last minute when it apparently realized Lolabelle was not a rabbit.  This brought to mind the similar idea of airborne predators that struck on 9/11, a thought that is never far from the mind of such a quintessentially New York artist, recalling the presence of so many armed troops suddenly stationed just outside her home throughout Lower Manhattan, where Lolabelle comes from the same breed of dogs that Homeland Security trains. 

One of the more unique sections is Anderson’s rendering of the Bardo, a transitionary state between death and rebirth, according to The Tibetan Book of the Dead, shown in expressionist paintings, near abstract imagery, and Anderson’s own remarkable score.  This epitomizes what Anderson is trying to do, expressing her own ruminations on the afterlife, describing the fragility of every moment, inviting the viewers into an imaginative use of variously textured visual effects, employing animation, 8mm home movie clips, distorted or altered imagery, text on the screen, newly shot footage, and such an inventive use of music, like the Kronos Quartet, Kronos Quartet — Flow (Laurie Anderson) [LIVE] - YouTube (3:18), all given shape by the weight of her own personal narration, developing such a stimulating and fluid work, as if conjured up from the depths of her own consciousness.  “You should try to practice how to feel sad without actually being sad,” suggests her teacher Rinpoche as we see snow fall gently in the woods and ice-skaters moving in slow motion on a frozen lake, as Anderson remembers her days skating on that lake in Glen Ellyn, recalling a haunting childhood memory, shown in faded and cracked photographs, when she was pushing two younger identical twin brothers in a stroller across the ice when suddenly the weight of the stroller fell through a cracked opening, where both children were instantly underwater.  All she could think about was the trouble she’d be in with her mother if she lost her brothers, so she dove into the frozen water, searching through the muck to retrieve one, placing him safely on the ice before diving after the other brother as well, running home with both of them tucked under each arm, where her mother’s response was “I didn’t know you were such an exceptional diver.”  The death of her mother awoke these strange and conflicted feelings of fear, a sense of urgency, and regret, but also that one moment when she was truly loved by her mother.  It’s an amazing incident, remarkably portrayed, and beautifully incorporated into an impressionistic film collage that delves into the depths of the human spirit.  With a flicker of his lost soul, Lou Reed’s “Turning Time Around” Lou Reed - Turning time around (2000) - YouTube (5:48) plays fittingly over the end credits.   

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