LOS ANGELES — “Do you have any treats? Put all your treats in the bucket. Absolutely no treats inside the theater,” a woman declared as we waited in line outside The Cinefamily, an independent movie theater located next to Canter’s Deli on Fairfax. My wife and I had come with our dog Ollie to see Heart of a Dog, a new film by artist and musician Laurie Anderson. This was not just any old screening — viewers were allowed to bring their pups, and Anderson would be performing a short concert specifically tailored to canines before the film.
With dozens of dogs occupying the theater’s narrow aisles, Cinefamily staff wanted to make sure everything went smoothly, hence the confiscation of dog treats, which presumably would add unnecessary excitement to an already charged atmosphere. “You’ll get them back when you leave,” she reassured us, as I took a handful of Charlee Bear snacks out of my pocket and dumped them in the contraband bucket.
We were led through the theater to an outdoor back patio where other dogs and their owners were milling about. The humans talked about the two highlights of the event: Laurie Anderson and dogs (mostly the dogs). I met Freeway Doggins and his owner Nicole, who found him on the side of the 101. I also met Tango, a poodle mix, who was an old hand at this, having attended the Puppy Bowl here last year.
Serendipitously, I ran into Maggie, an old college friend I hadn’t seen in at least 15 years. She’d gotten her dog Gigi four years ago after moving from New York to L.A. “I was a mess, no one talked to me here,” she told me. “So I decided to get a dog.” A creative director by day, in her spare time she makes sculptures of people’s pets out of wool, with their actual fur woven in.
Most of the dogs were rescued mutts, but a few bore purebred pedigrees, like Nicholas von Flue, a Bernese named after the Swiss saint, whose owners had traveled all the way to Albuquerque to get him.
After a quick meet-and-greet with Anderson, during which she graciously posed with people’s dogs for photos, we were herded into the theater, a carefully orchestrated procession that recalled the loading of Noah’s Arc but crossed with a red carpet event. “We’re ready for the large dogs, now, large dogs, please, follow me!” a staff member ordered, trying to get everyone into the theater as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Once the dogs were seated (big dogs on the couches in front; smaller ones on laps), Anderson, standing behind a small keyboard and voice modulator, began her set. I wasn’t sure the dogs would like the music, or even care, but as soon as the saxophonist started to eke out some high-pitched, skronky notes, Ollie’s ears perked up and he was transfixed. During one song, the band members themselves started barking, encouraging the dogs to join them as collaborators. Most of pups happily obliged, but not Ollie — he just looked around at the others like they were all crazy.
Anderson’s Heart of a Dog is ostensibly about the loss of her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle, but is actually much broader, using her story to explore themes of loss and letting go, memory and narrative. “The things in the film are from my life, however, this is not a film about me and my dog,” Anderson said in a talk after the screening. “It’s about trying to make a kind of conversation with people, filled with questions like: ‘What do you want? Where are you going?’ It’s about other things along the way.”
Heart of a Dog is an essayistic film, in the tradition of Chris Marker, jumping back and forth between Anderson’s intimate relationship with Lolabelle and many other, seemingly unrelated threads that branch off like tangents: the post 9/11 national security apparatus, the Tibetan book of the Dead, childhood recollections of almost accidentally drowning her twin brothers in an icy lake. We see Lolabelle’s decline, including a scene of her banging out Thelonious Monk–like patterns on the piano, which she began to play when she lost her sight. “When she went blind she didn’t do well,” Anderson recalled. “She would not move. She panicked. I didn’t necessarily want a piano-playing dog, but the point of this was to make a world that she could control. Music saved her life. A lot of musicians would say that.” Throughout it all, Anderson is our constant guide via voiceover. She has the perfect tone for speaking to dogs: calm and gentle, yet deliberate.
The film returns to Buddhism several times, and one of its main sections is dedicated to Anderson’s imagining of Lolabelle’s trip through the Bardo, the 49-day period of transition after death that is central to Tibetan Buddhism. Anderson references the Buddhist idea of “learn to feel sad without being sad,” which helped her through not only the loss of Lolabelle, but also that of her husband Lou Reed, who passed away in 2013, two years after Lola. Reed is only in the film briefly, but his song “Turning Time Around” provides an elegiac finale. “The thing that attracts me to Buddhism is the same as making art for me,” she said. “It doesn’t come with any set of rules about what’s good or bad. They share a single thing, which is basically: pay attention. That’s all it is.”
Anderson’s biggest challenge when making the film was finding a way to bind all its disparate elements together. “The hardest part for me was getting a progression. There has to be an engine pushing through,” she told the audience. “I made mine out of questions to you, asked over and over without answering them. I wanted something very ragged that would leave a lot of room for you to take what you would from it.
“I don’t know about your life,” she confided “but mine does not have a plot. Things just happen.”
Heart of a Dog screens at the Hammer Museum (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood, Los Angeles) on Wednesday, January 27, followed by a Q&A with Laurie Anderson.